When I set up Buddha Garden I decided that I did not want to have cows as they are very time consuming to look after and I was unsure whether I had the knowledge and experience to look after them successfully. We were able to obtain the cow dung we needed from next door Siddhartha Farm so it was not then absolutely necessary for Buddha Garden to have animals as well.
During Buddha Garden’s second year of operation, we were offered 30 chickens by someone who needed to get rid of them quickly and was willing to sell them at a cheap price. I had been wondering whether to have chickens or not as I had enjoyed keeping them before while living in another community, and there seemed to be a good market for their eggs. Initially I had the idea that they could eat things like weeds from the garden, that their dung would be extremely useful fertilizer, and that the eggs would provide a useful extra to the vegetables that we were selling. I envisioned a kind of ‘backyard flock’ where we would breed chickens ourselves. Our experience with these and other chickens has, over the years, demonstrated many of the problems of keeping animals on an organic farm.
Our first challenge was to make sure that the chickens were secure. We had built a chicken yard, but found that the chickens could fly out of it too easily and on several occasions caused a lot of destruction in the vegetable garden. We had to put a net over the top of the yard to prevent the chickens from getting out. The chickens were of a variety known as ‘Kirri Raja’ which had been bred for the Indian situation. They could be described as ‘enhanced village chickens’ having the rugged qualities of the village chicken, but they were much larger birds. They laid more eggs than village chickens (who lay around 15 eggs and then sit) and the eggs were large and brown and much liked by our customers. They did not, however, lay as well as some varieties like white leghorns, but they were fatter and could be sold as meat when their egg laying came to an end.
From the very beginning we decided that we would try to feed the chickens as much as we could from the land of Buddha Garden. All the weeds and other material from the vegetable gardens was fed to them which made the yolks of the eggs very yellow and the taste was excellent. For the chickens to lay well we had to supplement their food with grain and we found local varieties which were probably grown without pesticides although this was difficult to verify except in a few cases. We were unable to grow the food ourselves and it was then that we realised how much land and resources we would need to do this for our small number of chickens. Nevertheless the demand for our eggs was high and always greater than what we could supply.
Because our chickens did not go broody we got some village hens and used them as mothers to hatch more chicks. It was then that we realized that if we were going to keep chickens, even for eggs, we would be confronted with the task of killing some of them. Generally we found that if we put 10 eggs under a broody chicken, maybe 6 – 8 on average hatched with approximately half of them being male. A significant minority was also deformed in some way but in the beginning we used to let these live ‘just in case they got over it’. They never did and we should have killed them as soon as we realized that they were deformed. We also found that of the 6-8 chicks that hatched, usually one (through disease or other reasons) died before reaching adult hood.
Eventually we ended up with a flock, half consisting of males and the other half of females, which was obviously not sustainable unless we killed most of the males. Which is what we did and sold the meat to very appreciative customers. Having lived a more or less normal life for a chicken the meat was very tasty although it needed careful cooking if it was to be properly tender.
It was a huge advantage to us to have the chicken dung for the vegetable garden as it is high in nitrogen and the effect on the plants was very obvious. We also liked supplying those much appreciated eggs. For some time I had had the idea of integrating chickens more closely with the vegetable growing and when a volunteer, who was also a permaculture expert, came to stay in Buddha Garden he encouraged me to set up our integrated chicken unit.
This was quite an expensive enterprise as it consisted of:
- A strong brick chicken house with an attached straw yard all of which needed gates, locks, and an overhead net to keep the chickens in and the predators out. As the name suggests the yard was covered with straw and all the material – weeds, etc., – that came off the vegetable beds was put into the yard. Here the chickens ate as much as they could from it and with their scratching and droppings, gradually helped it to break down. In frequent shifts, we took this material from the yard and used it for making compost.
- Attached to the straw yard were three rotation yards equipped with their individual sprinkler irrigation systems. For a period of a few months the chickens were let into one of these yards which provided them with more food and which with their scratching they cleared as well as composted. Then they went on to the next yard where they did the same thing while we planted vegetables in the cleared space. When the vegetables were finished, the chickens were allowed back into the yard to clear it in readiness for the next planting.
In the beginning we had hoped to feed the chickens entirely from the land so that the eggs and meat were totally organic. Unfortunately, once again, because the land conditions at the time were extremely poor, not very much grew and so the food had to be supplemented with extra grains. As before, we tried using local grains that were probably organically grown but found that to increase egg production, the birds needed more of a mixture of grains to provide more energy. We found a source of chicken food that did not have supplements like antibiotics in it but were not able to verify whether the ingredients were grown organically – probably most of them were, but there was also a minority of inorganically grown ingredients. At this point we seriously investigated the possibility of growing chicken food on a piece of land behind Buddha Garden but decided that this would not be economically feasible until the land was irrigated as we would be too much at risk of losing crops if the rains did not come.
Despite these problems, however, we continued to produce eggs which were much appreciated and for which there was an increasing demand. We were also very pleased with the way the soil in the rotation yards was becoming more fertile as well as being able to use the material from the straw yard in our compost heaps. The extra food that we bought for the chickens was covered by what we received for their eggs so it looked as if this was an economically viable project.
Given the fast-growing demand for our eggs we therefore decided that we would build another integrated chicken house with rotation yards and try to do it on a larger scale. This was built more cheaply than the original one, but was still quite expensive given that every rotation yard had to be properly fenced and equipped with an individual irrigation system.
We planned to have 200 chickens in this new house as with the rotation yards there was plenty of room for them and we knew that we would be able to sell the eggs. We could have bought chickens ‘at point-of-lay’ – about six months old and ready to lay in a few weeks – or day-old chicks. Previously, I had bought chickens somewhat haphazardly from local breeders with the chickens being anything from 6 – 12 weeks old. Also, in the past I had bought one group of ‘point-of-lay’ chickens from a reputable breeder but it was clear that the chickens had been brought up in very close quarters and they responded badly to the stress of moving and did not do well in our more open situation. They also seemed to be unnaturally large which I found quite disturbing. I thought that maybe they had been fed antibiotics, or even hormones to make them grow, and that in Buddha Garden they found it difficult to do without them. Eventually most of them sickened and died – which was also the experience of another farmer who had got them from the same batch.
For the new project we therefore decided to buy only day-old chicks and to bring them up ourselves as we thought they would in the end be healthier and adapted to our situation. We decided to get Kirri Raja chickens as before because we felt that although they didn’t lay quite as well as some other breeds, they seemed to be healthier and provided more meat. We were unable to get sexed chicks so half of them turned out to be male which we eventually sold as meat. We found that having to kill this number was difficult – it is one thing to kill the odd few now and again, but doing it day-after-day we found to be quite unpleasant. This experience showed us that we would definitely not want to grow chickens just for their meat. Eventually we ended up with around 100 chickens, most of which were female.
From the beginning we had fed the chickens on chicken food as although they received a lot from the garden, it clearly wasn’t enough for this number. Once again we could not find organically grown food so we could not say that our eggs were 100% organic.
It took around eight months for the chickens to grow and start laying. As was usual, laying started slowly with small eggs but gradually the numbers and size of eggs increased. We had estimated that to cover food costs we would need at least 40 eggs per day, and since this meant that less than half the chickens had to lay each day this seemed like a reasonable forecast. In fact we hoped that we would eventually get 60 – 70 eggs or more each day which would help pay for the food during the time in which they were growing and not laying.
Unfortunately, even after four months of laying, the highest average of eggs per day was only 30. Then they stopped laying completely, this happening from one day to the next on July 25th for no apparent reason. We had gone through the really hot period when often chickens do not lay and we could not think of any reason why they should suddenly stop. We continued feeding them well in the hopes they would start again, but they never did. In the following 30 days approximately 100 chickens laid only 30 eggs.
By this time we had incurred considerable expenditure on food that looked as if it was never going to stop, so we decided to cut our losses and get rid of the chickens as soon as possible. The final loss was Rs16,500 which was a large amount of money for us to make up through the sales of our vegetables.
Over the next few months we debated the pros and cons of continuing the chicken project:
- Despite the way we kept the chickens we were still unable to produce real organic eggs as we could not grow sufficient food on the farm and did not have sufficient resources to grow our own. Food costs were high so we ended up producing quite expensive eggs that were not organic. We could not justifiably increase the cost of our eggs, although they were obviously special in terms of taste and the colour of the yolks. We could possibly grow more food for the chickens in the rotation yards but it was debateable as to whether we could grow enough and we would then have fewer vegetables to sell.
- One possibility would be to keep no more chickens than what we could grow food for on the farm. Thinking in detail about this made it clear just how much land would be needed to feed one chicken and so we could probably only keep quite a small number. The financial viability of doing this was questionable unless we could charge a lot more for the eggs – which was not impossible. Many of our customers had said they would be willing to pay a lot more for organic eggs.
- We missed having our own source of dung as although we could get cow dung from the farm next door the cows were not fed organically. Even if we did not get very much for the eggs it might be worthwhile to keep chickens for the dung alone as we had seen how much more powerful it was than cow dung and it would be totally organic.
- I missed the chickens; I missed the noises they made – their squawking and crowing. I missed their energy.
About six months later we decided that we would keep a small number of chickens but would do so for what they provided in the way of dung and compost. We decided to keep village chickens as they are very adapted to the climate. We also decided that as we were keeping the chickens for their compost making qualities we would see the eggs as a bonus. Thus the chickens perform a very important role in Buddha Garden – making compost – for which we are very grateful. As a bonus they also provide us with a small number of organic eggs for which we can charge a premium price.