The Sustainable Backyard Flock in an Industrial World

Backyard Feast is finally about to take the plunge with a Backyard Flock!

As I’ve been not-so-subtly hinting over the last few months, we’ve been planning to add some chickens and some ducks to the backyard homestead this spring.  And despite yesterday’s snowfall (!), spring is here, with the first local poultry swap scheduled for Sunday.  We took advantage of the snow day yesterday to gather our supplies for a brooder (to house the chicks and ducklings in a warm, temporary home) and the coop-to-be.  We’re just about ready!

But all this planning has been an interesting process for this city girl.  My total pet experience over my lifetime was a goldfish or two that got flushed not long after they joined my childhood family, 2 bunnies–one went to a racoon and one to the local feral population–and a small lapdog who joined our family for a few years while I was in my late teens.  Skipper’s experience was the complete opposite: he grew up very rural and with animals just around.  There was a big dog who lived outside, a rough pen with a couple of geese and some ducks.  These weren’t city pets brushed and groomed each day and let out of their cages to play with the kids for an hour now and again.

So when we started contemplating adding animals to the property, I started on the research.  But I was wary; we wanted to do things as naturally and sustainably as possible.  As always, though, in our industrial world, it can be ironically difficult to find reliable information, and nearly impossible to do things “the old-fashioned way,” even if you can find out what that means.

We all know, for instance, that “once upon a time,” everyone kept a few chickens around in a pretty laid back way.  But how many chickens?  How were they fed?  Did they keep a rooster or two?  How were they all housed?  What were the problems they encountered?  Are those practices still the best ones?  Details are sketchy and hard to come by.

My fantasy flock is a self-sustaining one.  I have a rooster and a harem of hens who spend their days happily foraging around the property for most of their feed, are friendly and calm, breed a new batch of chicks once in a while, and are tucked in at night in a cosy, clean coop.  It all looks something like this.

The unforseen challenges of my fantasy started quickly, with where and how to acquire chicks, and of what kind.  I had decided early on that I was interested in dual-purpose heritage breeds.  These are the traditional backyard breeds–hardy, calm, good egg layers, with enough substance to become meat birds if desired.  They are beautiful and have great storied histories, which is fun for me. 🙂  The “problem” with the heritage breeds, though, is that it’s difficult to tell the males and females apart until they are fairly mature.  This means that most often you buy chicks as “straight run” or as a mystery group, where you work with the hand you’re dealt.

So what does everyone do with the roosters that they end up with that they don’t want in their laying flock?  Why they eat them, of course. (or find someone else who will)  This may be glaringly obvious to everyone reading, but it was a bit of a puzzle to me–I haven’t eaten chicken in almost 20 years, and I had no idea I was eating rooster. 🙂  So first challenge: if we raised chicks, and wanted heritage breeds, then we get roosters, and the responsible thing to do is eat the roosters.  Hmmm.  (I’m leaving out the hours spent on the detective work of what age do you need to separate the roosters from the hens, do we have the space for that, when do they start to crow, and how loud would 6 roosters be housed together?!  Would they fight? etc etc…)  Luckily for us, we live just around the corner from a local pastured livestock farm that has invested in a processing facility for small farmers on the south island.  They will process as few as 1 bird at a time, and their prices are entirely reasonable.  So that’s an amazing option right in our backyard.

Keeping a rooster on hand to keep the flock going is more complicated than it seems.  You need more hens than we really want to keep one rooster.  You assume that all the eggs you collect are fertilized, which apparently creates no difference from regular eggs because we store them refrigerated which keeps any embryos from developing in any way that we could ever be aware of. know…city girl.  Hmmm.  Or you house your roo somewhere else, which is not really practical for us.  So for now, at least, we’ll be bringing in someone else’s chicks when we need them.  Which shouldn’t really be very often, as the heritage breeds can be decent layers for a number of years.  But our flock won’t be sustainable, as in self-sustaining.

Next problem. Where do those chicks come from?  In the backyard chicken craze sweeping North America, I’m noticing that people seem to treat chickens as one more trendy consumer commodity.  Not that they treat them irresponsibly, necessarily, once they have them, but in the way that they’re obtained.  You see, few of us have the neighbour anymore that we would simply go to for some extra chicks if we wanted them.  There are very few self-sustaining, traditional backyard flocks around these days.

So most folks go online and research.  They look at pictures and read about breed temperaments and stories, and learn their way up the curve, just like I’m doing.  And then they go online, to a hatchery website, and hit the “buy now” button for the chicks and the breeds they want, enter their credit card numbers, and wait for the call from the post office that their day-old chicks are ready for them to pick up.  Who knew?!

This mail order chick business is not new at all; one of the biggest hatcheries, McMurray, has been around 95 years!  And the hatchery business is not inherently unethical.  I don’t think.  They are largely still family run by people who love the business, from what I can gather.  But still.  Tens of thousands of eggs line hundreds of incubators in dozens of buildings.  As the eggs hatch, they are carried in trays to people who sex them if possible and pack them up into boxes and send them out into the mail.  This is not exactly natural.  And in fact, commenters on the forums do seem to notice differences in personalities between “hatchery chickens” of particular breeds, and naturally raised birds.

But there are no guarantees that small breeders are raising chicks the “natural” way.  In fact, to be a responsible breeder, particularly to keep a heritage or endangered breed viable, takes incubators and carefully controlled scientific attention.  But at least that attention can be given to each bird when the scale is still small.

Then there’s the feed issue.  Again, luckily for us we live in a pretty strong granola region.  In our travels yesterday, I started asking questions at the feed stores.  We have access to all-veggie feeds, non-gmo’d feeds, and organic feeds.  In fact, we don’t have access to ordinary feeds that use meat meal at all!  I’m not actually sure that this is a good thing–chickens are omnivores, after all, and “veggie” = soy most of the time.  Hence the non-gmo’d or organic options.  Sustainable?  Hmmm…  Then there’s the medicated vs non-medicated options!  And you thought feeding yourself ethically was complicated!

So these are just a few of the pitfalls of keeping a “sustainable” backyard flock that I’ve encountered so far.  And I haven’t even got the chicks picked out or home yet!  But you get the idea.  It’s a difficult task, navigating through and around the systems of the industrial world!  I’ll save our specific management plans and the story of how things “used to be” for another post.  But meanwhile, wish us luck on Sunday!

Project #2: Building Raised Beds

There are instructions in every gardening book and website on how to build raised beds.  If you had just arrived on this planet, you might not think it was possible to grow vegetables without them!  Unfortunately, raised beds are not a no-brainer, and in our case, they’ve actually been a bit of a dilemma.

The name “raised bed” means a lot of different things in the gardening world.  In some places, raised beds simply evolved out of the practice of shoveling the soil out of the pathways each year and on to the growing surface.  This produces a looser, slightly raised section that can then be manured, etc, without wasting soil amendments on the pathways.  There are big advantages to this system, especially when combined with a no-till practice: straw or other organic mulch on the paths during the growing season also improves that soil beneath and provides fresh organic matter to refresh the beds with each year.

Raised beds in the above sense–without boxes or other reinforcements around them–make a lot of sense.  They are easy to weed standing up with a hoe or other long-handled tool; they are easy to seed with a small simple walk-behind seeder; they are easy to irrigate with drip tape.  Crops are easy to track in long raised rows, and paths need only be minimally wide. Many new small organic farms (those with minimal machinery) are going this route.

In the small backyard garden, the raised bed planter is another popular option.  In this common scenario, the grass in the previous suburban lawn is smothered, a box frame is placed on top, topsoil purchased from the local supplier is piled in, and presto–instant garden.  These have their place too, clearly: they can be built deep, so that you don’t have to bend over so far to work on them if that’s an issue for you.  They are instant, and anything that makes growing food in your backyard is a good thing in my book.  They are reasonably easy to maintain, and weeds don’t usually take over right away (especially if you’ve made them more than a couple of inches high).

But this method has downsides that aren’t often talked about.  First, they are expensive!  They really only make sense on a very small scale.  Options for framing include cheaper woods that will only last a couple of years before they need to be replaced, slightly more expensive woods that are pressure-treated with nasty chemicals but last indefinitely, really expensive naturally rot resistant woods like cedar, or even more expensive but permanent materials like concrete blocks.

Other downsides?  Raised beds don’t hold water nearly as well as the ground itself, which is good in the soggy spring, but terrible in the drought of summer.  Various bugs and slugs love to live in the crevices in and around damp wood frames and are almost impossible to get out or keep out.  Weeds also creep under and up the sides of the frame, and can keep their roots in places very difficult to access.  One of the benefits of a non-edged deep bed is the planting area on the sloped sides, which is especially useful space for companion planting.  This benefit disappears in the framed box.

Regardless of the method, though, most people building raised beds have one thing in common: they are building them on top of their regular soil. And this is where we have run into trouble.

We inherited with our home a lovely section of the garden that is flat and sunny and had some older, shallow raised beds on it.  At the time that we moved in, they hadn’t been used much, and they were full of strawberries and california poppies.  I sheet mulched in the fall and started planting in the spring.  The framed edges of the beds were starting to rot out, and we knew they would need to be replaced, but thought we could get through a season with them.

We did pretty well until my fava beans reached 7 feet high around May/June.  They looked amazing!  Then they started to collapse from the top down.  Suspecting a root issue, I went digging.  And within about 4-6 inches, I hit sand.  Then a plastic liner.  Oh dear.

Turns out our major growing area is built on top of our unique septic field.  There is no issue with the septic system draining under there–we have a mini treatment plant, and what drains out is plain water.  But on top of the field is a plastic liner, a couple of inches of sand, then a couple of inches of topsoil.  This was clearly never intended to be a productive part of the garden!

And that’s how, despite being interested in permaculture and biointensive growing, we’re building raised beds.  But how to build beds on sand?  How deep?  There’s no subsoil, no wicking, no groundwater.  I’m still confused by the idea of “soil-building” when there is no subsoil.  Standard gardening rules do not apply.  We could have gone with container gardening instead–ie putting a bottom on the beds–but then the material costs skyrocket again.

After doing a fair bit of research, I decided we needed to go deep.  Like as close to 2 feet deep as we could.  More depth is better for the veggies, 24″ is the double-digging goal, and more soil = more water retention (and fewer weeds!).

I loved the idea of beds laid out in decorative potager-style patterns, permaculture keyhole beds and other creative design layouts.  But I also wanted maximum space and minimum paths, AND I wanted convenient access.  The options started to narrow.  2 ft is high and gets awkward with a wheelbarrow.  Maximum bed-size meant big pieces of wood, which meant simple square or rectangular designs.  The section we’re working with is roughly 25 x 25, before the outer pathways, and I didn’t want to have to walk around a 25 foot long bed (although many do)!

What we’re going with at the end of the day will be a good compromise, I think.  We are spending the money on cedar.  I don’t want to have to redo all this in 2-3 years!  We went looking for the best deal on 2×10 cedar lumber, thinking we’d stack them 2 high and I would get close to 24″ of growing depth.  We would make 8 beds, roughly 4 feet wide by 12 foot lengths, with just a small “squeeze-through” path between the ends (to fit our 25′ ish garden length) and larger, 2′ wide paths down the long sides.  The perimeter will have wider, 3′ paths all the way around for easy access with the wheelbarrow.

The best deal on cedar I could find was a young guy with a mill and a line on logs in a town about half an hour away.  12 foot long 2x10s would be about $22.50 each.  We bought 12, intending to build 2 beds now, and then keep building them a couple at a time as we could afford them.  Total cost in lumber alone? More than $1000.  Ouch!  And that’s before we buy more soil to fill them with!  Definitely cheaper to buy veggies at the grocery store! 🙂

But when the Skipper got the lumber home (it’s gorgeous), he suggested that going with a 10″ deep edge, for about 12″ of growing depth might be enough this year.  Doing so would cut our costs in half, and would still be a massive improvement over the situation last year, during which we still managed to grow a s#*@% load of veggies.  We could always add depth later if we wanted to, or as we could afford it.  I resisted at first–nothing’s too good for the root systems of my pole beans and tomatoes!–but came around when I saw the material.  I’m getting easily a third more growing area, and tripling my soil depth in some places.  And with the list of other building projects still to come…. I was convinced.  Let the building begin!

gorgeous 2x10 cedar (full-dimension width means it's actually 10")
Before: Handsome and handy husband with our 4x8x4" deep beds
After: Bed #1 is 4x12x10" deep. Big Difference!
2 beds in! Woot! Notice how we're taking over what little lawn we had... 🙂

There are 2 more frames built, but I’ve got strawberries to move and manure and soil to shovel this week before we can put them down.  And the Skipper’s psyched to get the rest of the beds in and soil delivered next weekend!  Of course, next Sunday is also the first local poultry swap…

How To Build The Ultimate Compost Bin

Step 1: Beg Explain patiently to professional carpenter husband over several months that current compost bins are old and too small and in the wrong place.  Paint dazzling word pictures of abundant food and rich soil that would result from beautiful new compost bins.

Step 2: Research.  Turns out it’s not easy to find a good set of plans!  Most of the compost bin instructions out there are for recycled pallet bins or a couple of other common designs that were dismissed by said husband as either too ugly, too expensive to build on our budget, or lacking in lateral or other significant supports.  We did end up finding these useful plans from the City of Vancouver, and this became our base idea.  I figured that if these plans would keep Vancouver compost dry in the winter monsoons and safe from raccoons and other city critters, they were good enough for us.

Step 3: Take stock of existing supplies and recycle as much as possible.  Can you believe the fr#@%!*g price of wood these days?!  Skipper recycled our previous deck stairs and some cedar posts that he rescued from a job site a year or so ago.  He salvaged as much of the old bin’s cedar as he could.  We bought a small amount of pressure-treated wood for the base, a small amount of cedar for the front pieces, some hardware cloth to rodent-proof the bins, and a small number of assorted screws and other bits and bobs, and we’re still into this for almost $300.  Hence the large number of online plans for recycled pallet compost bins!

Step 4: When the good weather arrives—start building!


Old 2-bin system falling apart. Note loose plywood top--hinges are rusted out and old lid is long gone...
Preparing the new site perpendicular to the old one. New footprint: 10' x 4'.
The frame of recycled cedar posts stacked on concrete pavers to keep the wood off the ground.

We decided to raise the bins off the ground for both rodent-proofing and to make shoveling a little easier on the back.

Coming together: more salvaged and recycled cedar. Former deck stairs create the base. We could have parked our deck chairs right there, it's so sturdy!
Hardware cloth on; first bin complete!
Complete! New metal roof, and compost curing in its new home.

The details…

Each of the front (removable) panels has 2 screws in place at the bottom and has holes drilled in it for air circulation
The metal roof on its cedar frame. Light for me to lift!
The finished product!

It’s our equivalent of Rob at OneStraw‘s Compost Bin of Dreams.  It’s hard to convey through these photos just how sturdy and stable the whole thing is–ready for many tons of compost to be produced in the years to come.  The Skipper is pretty psyched; he’s even taken to pilfering all the fruit peels shed by his crew at work each day and bringing them home in a bucket “for me”. 🙂  Most importantly, the bin’s new location clears the way for the chicken coop, and the bigger size anticipates the fabulous chicken manure and litter that will be piling up in the not-so-distant future.

Apologies for the long hiatus between posts recently.  As you can see, we are now Making Progress in a big way on our spring plans.  I have lots more to report on, so will be trying to post more often.  Stay tuned!