Integrating Animals Into Your Veggie Patch
So now for the fun part - how to integrate animals into your veggie patch!
So why would you want to do this in the first place? I’m going to look specifically at chickens (and a dog who thinks she is a chicken), as they are probably the easiest domestic animal to put to work in your veggie patch - but hey, if you have a nice friendly Jersey cow, I won't stop you!
Animals are an integral part of a regenerative farming system. Plants and animals have evolved together over millennia, and have special relationships with each other and also with the microbes in our soil. In regenerative farming, animals are used to improve soil health by cycling nutrients and adding moisture, nutrients and microbes to the soil and by providing animal impact - grazing with their mouths and trampling with their feet. This results in paddocks that are more resilient to climate variability (less frost damage and more drought resilient), increased water retention due to more carbon being sequestered by plant roots, and dependence on chemical inputs such as synthetic fertiliser, chemicals and pesticides is reduced or sometimes eliminated.
But as you may have heard before, it’s not the cow, it's the how: how livestock are managed is the key to improving soil health. Traditional conventional management involves set stocking, or leaving the same number of animals in a paddock year round, with the animals having access to the pasture all the time. This leads to overgrazing - when plants are constantly grazed and not given the time to recover and grow again before being grazed.
Regenerative farmers apply a kind of grazing practice called holistic planned grazing or high density rotational grazing. This involves keeping all your animals in a small area and moving them often onto fresh pasture, giving the pasture as much time as possible to recover before being grazed again. The effect this has is a bit like moving your lawn and fertilizing it, then leaving it for a month before mowing it again - it has time to grow! If you mowed your lawn every day, the plants would never get the chance to grow and would slowly degenerate over time.
So how do I do this with chickens? In a couple of ways. I work with the chickens to use their very useful set of skills to regenerate my veggie patch. As anyone with chickens would know however, that particular skill set when unleashed on masse without consent can wreak havoc in mere minutes.. As happened to one of my garlic beds earlier this year when Doris (pictured) and a few of her mates flew the coop for the day.
Direct impact - chickens in the veggie beds
I use this method when I have a crop that has finished, and I want the girls to eat the remaining plants and weeds, and trample some of the mulch into the soil before I plant again. They also clean up the slater population, which tends to get a bit out of hand after a good veggie season. I do this by putting a temporary fence around the area that I want them to turn over, and pop as many in there as possible for a day, until they have eaten everything I want them to. The manure that goes directly on the garden is then used by the next plants in the bed. This also works for an area covered in winter weeds - I put the girls in and get them to eat the weeds right down to the ground, before moving them on.
Direct Impact - chickens in a cover crop
I use this to establish a good health soil biome with a multi species cover crop, then use the chickens to eat it down and flatten it before planting my cash crop. In this instance, I’ve planted a winter cover crop, and am using the girls to mow it right to the ground before planting my summer corn crop here in spring. This method is similar to digging a heap of compost into the soil, but without the soil disturbance - you're growing the organic matter into the soil instead, with the roots from the cover crop. I’ll then top it off with some compost before planting the corn seedlings, and adding a mulch layer over the top to keep the soil moist and the microbes protected from the elements.
Using composted chicken manure to fertilise your veggies and add microbes to your soil. It's important to use composted chicken manure, as fresh chicken manure is very high in nitrogen and can burn your plants if you apply it when it is fresh. This is a great way to add that animal impact if you don’t have the space to keep chickens but you still have a veggie patch - you can buy composted chicken manure from most nurseries. Here it is giving the asparagus a little spring boost!
I hope this has given you some inspiration in the garden - get those chickens and get them to work! Doris recommends extra hand fed treats for extra friendly chickens. Don't you Doris?