Timing is everything when it comes to soil building and healthy crops. If you till, tilling at the right time can make major differences in terms of the amount of damage to the soil and its recovery. Too wet or too dry, too warm or too cold will turn tillage into a terror. If you plant your main crops too late, companion plants and cover crops will overtake them before they are strong enough to compete; plant them too early and freezes or frosts may harm them in many climates.

On our farm our goal is to have up to six harvests per growing space per year, generally two to three for people and two to three for our livestock. This goal makes even small spaces economically productive while also feeding and building the soil constantly throughout the year. Along with the right timing, a homestead needs two kinds of infrastructure to achieve this. The first is portable fencing that gives animals access to designated areas to forage and harvest crop residues without destroying everything around them. And second are the season extenders such as low tunnels, floating row covers/frost cloth and the greenhouse plastic that lengthen the growing season for food crops.

RELATED: Organic Farming Tips: 10 Ways to Build Better Soil

Flexible Infrastructure

To be able to move animals safely through growing spaces you need portable infrastructure that is properly sized. If your chicken tractor is 10 feet wide but your growing spaces are 6 feet wide, things are not going to work out. The chicken tractor doesn’t “fit” the growing space.

Scale both kinds of infrastructure to fit together in harmony. For example, let your season extension hoops be large enough to house your chicken tractor, thus ensuring that your chickens’ home and your garden beds are roughly identical in size.

Modern technology makes keeping animals reasonably confined to protect crops a cinch while still providing them with plenty of space to forage freely. Portable polywire fencing products from companies like Premier can totally change daily chores and chicken logistics. Instead of having to move chickens in a chicken tractor every day once a growing space or pasture is ready, poultry net fencing can be used to create a run along the growing bed or space inside a garden or paddock while excluding the chickens from adjacent spaces and crops.

soil building healthy vegetables

Good soil grows healthy, flavorful vegetables.

 

Such a space can serve the chickens well for one or more weeks, depending on the number of birds, the depth of the mulch, the type of forage available and other factors, while still providing ample, high-quality forage as the chickens clean up crop residues, soil pests and cover crops. They will save you time and tools by tilling and turning organic matter into the soil. A system like this can reduce the need to buy feed by 20 percent or more while improving soil, increasing crop production and removing pests.

At night, when the chickens are back resting in their tractor, the fencing can be pulled and moved to the next appropriate space along with the tractor. Come morning, a fresh feast awaits the flock. For those who use low tunnels, a set of low tunnel hoops can easily be converted to a tractor shelter for turkeys or chickens.

Multi-Mission Mulch

Mulches and animals go hand in hand since incorporating chickens or other small-scale poultry into a growing space in a positive manner assumes that your growing spaces are well mulched.

Mulch absorbs animal manure,  while protecting the soil from possible erosion caused by tilling and disturbance. For chickens especially, whose manures can “burn” the soil with too much nitrogen, the carbon content of mulches helps keep the carbon/nitrogen ratio around 30: 1.

Many growers express concern over the use of mulches. There is no doubt that properly sourcing and using mulches requires some reading, research and care. Both straw- and wood-based mulches come with a host of concerns and caveats for their proper use, many of which growers are not fully aware.

RELATED: Rapid Soil-Building Techniques to Kick-Start Your Garden

Mulches do so many important things that once a grower grasps their functions, he or she will generally no longer become glum over their use. Properly applied mulches reduce weeding and watering by up to 80 percent or more. In this regard, they are a small upfront investment that produces many happy returns.

Mulches protect the soil from the two major kinds of compaction—compaction by human action (weight on bare soil) and compaction by heating and evaporation. Bare soil basically gets cooked by direct sunlight. This cooking not only burns organic matter right out of the soil, but as moisture is lost, it causes the soil to shrink and compact (depending on soil type). A simple bit of mulching protects the soil from these problems.

Compaction robs the soil of the air, water and root space that plants need to thrive. Mulches protect these valuable soil assets while feeding the soil food web and doing a host of other beneficial things in the process. Mulch reduces soil temperature, helps to conserve moisture and improve plant health by easing drought stress. This temperature reduction and shading also allow beneficial soil dwellers to stay higher up in the soil, keeping soil building chugging along all year long in many climates. Bare soil drives soil dwellers deep into the soil or into dormancy until conditions improve.

turkeys soil building

Last summer it took the Moody’s three turkeys only a few days to clean up an infestation of Japanese beetles in their pole beans.

 

Natural Pest Control

One of the main concerns about mulches—their tendency to attract and provide protection for pest populations—is exactly why chickens and other animals make perfect companions to crops. Pest populations are prey to a hungry flock of chickens. We had a bad infestation of Japanese beetles last summer on our pole beans. Our small flock of three turkeys took care of the pest problem in a few days, while doing minimal, if any, damage to the plants. Natural pest control plus free protein for the poultry is a positive.

Some people worry that allowing chickens in the same areas where they are growing food may contaminate their crops. This is a valid concern, but not too hard to correct. Chickens that are properly cared for—given quality feed, comfortable living quarters, high-quality forage and clean, deep bedding—should rarely have issues with parasites, pathogens and other such problems. To put it another way, chickens that are unhealthy are almost always a sign of mismanagement. If you need help caring for your flock, get a copy of Harvey Ussery’s book, Small Scale Poultry Flock.

The healthier the soil food web on your farm or homestead, the less cause for concern. Remember, every day dozens if not hundreds of animals, including birds, are dropping manures and various microbes and more all over your homestead’s ecosystems. To think that excluding chickens somehow excludes nature is a real head scratcher. You may never put a chicken in your garden, but your confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) and your neighbor’s manure lagoon are being visited by birds that are dropping manures every which way. The goal is to create a healthy ecosystem with healthy animals all around to handle breaking down pathogens pronto.

Testing is both available and affordable for most major pathogens. For those with any concerns or those selling produce and other products from the farm, it is probably prudent to test your flocks once or twice a year, depending on your use of chickens and other animals in your produce production model. After chickens are allowed to clean up a crop space, letting the soil rest is important. Allow the space 30 to 60 days before planting edible crops to allow the manures to be metabolized into the soil. 

RELATED: Compost Tea Recipe: The Secret Behind A Successful Vegetable Garden

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.