Low-Risk Silvopasture: Chickens, Turkeys, Guinea Hens, Ducks and Geese
Interested in getting started with silvopasture? Consider purchasing a flock of poultry, which add plenty of value to your managed ecosystem (pest control, soil turnover, etc.) and derive benefits of their own to fluorish be productive livestock. You will have to decide, though, which type of poultry will work best with your particular ecosystem: chickens, turkeys, ducks, or geese?
(No clue what silvopasture even is? Read What in the world is Silvopasture?)
The following excerpt is from Silvopasture by Steve Gabriel and has been adapted for the web.
In some ways birds are the least likely animals to inflict long-term damage in silvopasture systems, purely because of their size. This doesn’t mean you can’t do harm with birds, but the stakes are almost certainly lower, especially when you start with smaller numbers. Some purists might not consider poultry in the woods or among trees to be true silvopasture, as the forage layer may be less managed, more a result of what’s already there. Nonetheless integrating birds into a silvopasture system offers potential benefits for the birds, as well as for the woods, particularly in relationship to other, larger grazing animals.
Also notable with poultry is that although there is a rather large interest in feeding birds solely off the land, very few are actually doing it, and no one is really looking deeply into the question of doing it sustainably. While the Internet is littered with anecdotes of both success and failure, ultimately some sort of controlled trials will be needed to learn exact thresholds. Just as with the pigs, importation of feed from off-site will be a necessary part of the equation, at least at the outset. When I first began raising meat, it was with chickens. I was supremely excited to see them scratch, till, and fertilize our land and start to bring a dynamic, active presence to restoring ecosystems. One thing I didn’t anticipate in my utopian vision was how many trips to the feed store I would take. We experienced this in an even more extreme way when we raised ducks for meat. Each duck needed 0.3 to 0.4 pound of grain per day to gain enough weight for market in a timely manner.
Our solution was ultimately to settle on birds for egg production. This drastically reduces their need for grain and allows them to rely more on foraged feeds. We are exploring ways to produce more feeds on-site, including producing black soldier fly larvae, and using spent mushroom spawn as a feed source. We also limited our flock size to 30 to 50 birds, which means that even feeding some grain doesn’t break the bank or impact the larger ecological picture as much. We can justify this economically, but it’s not a major income source for the farm. It is basically break-even, but we value the animals largely for their pest control benefits to other systems on the farm.
Within the context of silvopasture, getting poultry into the woods offers them shade and shelter. They absolutely thrive in more diverse, shaded landscapes, especially ducks and geese, who easily overheat during hot summer days. Certainly a plan for silvopasture can include plantings of forages, such as legume cover crops. In many instances we can also leverage poultry to address pest issues on the landscape, a true win-win: We’re reducing the impact of the pest and feeding the animals at the same time.
Additionally, there is abundant opportunity to capture feed from local waste streams, especially byproducts of grain and flour processing, as well as spent grain from breweries. For chickens and turkeys, food scraps can be a great resource, especially when they’re composted—a process that inevitably attracts and breeds all sorts of insects and bugs to eat. This importation of food wastes, along with the easiest input of all (from a time perspective), store-bought feed, can be seen by the savvy land manager as valuable nutrient inputs on the landscape. In other words, outside inputs bring in outside fertility, which can then be captured and cycled through the system. This ultimately helps the soil, forages, and trees thrive.
Birds are in many senses the lowest-risk animals to incorporate into forest- and tree-based systems, mainly because they are small and their collective weight is low. It would be hard to set back the woods in a serious way with birds, but this doesn’t mean you can’t do damage. Rotational grazing is still a must, especially in existing woodlots. One of the most notable effects of poultry presence in the woods is the rapid degradation of leaf cover on the forest floor.
Considering that the leaf fall in a forest generally covers and mulches the forest floor for about one year, it’s not surprising that a bunch of birds would degrade it much faster. What this means for silvopasture is that supplemental organic matter is going to be necessary, even when rotating animals for a shorter stay in a paddock. Our farm always has hay, straw, or leaves on hand to cover any bare soil after our ducks have moved on. Bare soil means damaged soil. (Are we getting repetitive yet?)
Each type of poultry brings a different set of advantages and disadvantages to silvopastures.
For this reason you should select birds for the needs of your system, rather than what is often done, which is selecting the product first, then figuring out next how to work that into the landscape. Let’s distinguish scratch birds from waterfowl, and get into more detail about the advantages and disadvantages of each. We won’t elaborate on all the management needs for each type, instead commenting on the considerations specific to silvopasture.
Scratch-and-till chickens seek a diet heavy in seeds, insects, and worms. Their sharp talons help them seek food, stirring up the soil and, when not moved frequently, degrading the surface organic matter rapidly. If you use them to follow grazing animals, they will break apart manure clusters, accelerating its decomposition while also consuming any remaining insects and larvae.
They can also be rotated through with proper monitoring to till up areas and establish new seedbeds to improve forage diversity and quality. While we don’t have an exact figure, some report that chickens can utilize forages for up to around 5 to 20 percent of their diet. The rest usually comes from grain. Egg layers may be able to survive on little to no grain, but meat birds especially will almost certainly need it, and are generally considered to be poorer at foraging, especially as they get bigger. Those interested in chicken silvopasture will likely need to focus on egg production and find breeds with more experience in active foraging.
Chickens tend to stick close to home and, while they live in groups, have less of a herd mentality than other poultry. While their activities can have some positive effects on pest populations in cropping systems, they must be closely monitored in any existing cropping or around newly planted trees. In relation to plants, they are best used in the establishment phase. Rotate them frequently if you want to keep them from stirring up the soil. Or you could concentrate them in an area you’re prepping for tree planting, where their activity will remove the grass layer and help prep the site.
In the context of silvopasture, trees and brush clearly provide benefit to chickens, sheltering them from heat and high winds, and protecting them from predators, especially those lurking overhead. They can do good in orchards, where their curious pecking can help with post-harvest cleanup. As chickens are small, they are less amenable to overgrown pastures than are larger birds, but also able to make better headway through thick brush, though they won’t do much in the way of cleaning it up.
Chickens can be immediately integrated into existing woods, though prolonged access to a confined area may prematurely wear down the delicate duff layer that protects the forest soil. Gaps and patches in the forest will provide a more diverse layer of vegetation, though mostly the birds will seek out the critters in downed logs and in the soil. Choose breeds that are proven as excellent foragers—a title usually reserved for the egg-laying and mixed breeds, and those with heritage bloodlines.
All in all, pasturing chickens in silvopasture has some benefits, but is not as compelling as some of the other options out there. Their biggest benefit is arguably in a leader-follower rotation, where they can compound the benefits of grazing ruminants by cleaning up after them. In this scenario they can help break apart manure pads and integrate them into the soil faster.
Like chickens, turkeys scratch and till, though generally with less intensity. In the wild, turkeys are long-distance travelers, moving in tightly knit packs. Some literature suggests that this pattern of movement situates them well to be herded like sheep to areas that would benefit from their form of scratch and peck, which ideally tends to focus on bigger seeds, nuts, and insects. They can also utilize a wider range of forage legumes and fallen fruits than chickens, though supplemental grain is almost definitely going to be a necessity if weight gain is a production goal.
One of the best possible contributions of turkeys is their ability to address pest problems around the farm, especially around orchards with fruit and nut crops. They hunt with incredible precision and are able to utilize a wider range of forages than chickens. These could include acorns, beech nuts, pine seeds, roots, wild fruits, and clovers and alfalfa.
The biggest challenge with turkeys is their vulnerability to disease, which is most dramatic during their first months. Some report that they also can be difficult to corral into a roost at night, and so can be vulnerable to predation. Careful breed selection and some extra care early on can reduce some of these issues.
The role of turkeys in silvopasture systems is similar to that of chickens, where they’re mostly on the receiving end of the benefits, except where a specific crop pest can be mitigated by including them. Turkeys would be excellent in silvopasture systems with hazelnuts or chestnuts, where they could harvest the excess and break potentially damaging pest cycles.
Mostly foraging birds, guineas are best known for their odd appearance and behavior—which depending on whom you ask ranges from charming to annoying. These ground-nesting birds originate on the African continent and are from savanna and open pasture systems. They are most often free ranging, as they can fly and evade some attempts to contain them. Their biggest advantage is their expert ability to forage without engaging in the intense tilling and scratching associated with chickens and turkeys.
Their wild nature can be challenging, though. It leads to lower maintenance, as guinea fowl often avoid returning to a coop and prefer to roost in trees around the property (readily available in a silvopasture!). While free ranging, they eat all sorts of beetles, fleas, grasshoppers, and even ticks, which is what they are most famous for. Yet this can leave them especially vulnerable to predation.
Guineas make a lot of noise—which can in some cases deter predators and plant pests. It’s been reported that farmers have used them in the past mixed with chickens and turkeys as predator deterrents, as well as in orchards to drive off pest birds. Still, many people report that the noise drives them crazy; that the birds’ wild habits lead to them wandering off; and that they are very hard to contain. Few raise them commercially; in most cases they are free-ranging birds valued more for their ecosystem services.
Contrary to what many believe, ducks can survive without constant access to open water. Such access would be ideal, perhaps, although in many cases too much of it can lead to issues. These waterfowl need water both to clean themselves and to clean out their nostrils, which get muddied up as they root and forage in the soil. All this leads to dirty water, and as such duck access to ponds and creeks should be occasional and monitored. For the rest of the time, smaller 5- to 10-gallon tubs that are filled and emptied daily suffice for their needs.
Places where water accumulates during heavy rain events but dissipates quickly, sometimes known as vernal pools, are also good options. In our experience, ducks have enjoyed and benefited from the range of environments our system offers, from the forest garden to tree-planted swales to the woods surrounding our mushroom operation. Depending on the level of heat intensity and precipitation, we can rotate them to an appropriate environment to make the most of their attributes.
Most ducks are descendants of the mallard breed, known as “dabblers” because they forage by digging in the soil or muck with their beaks—hence the need to clean themselves frequently. With resident ducks, you can’t keep water clean for more than a day, but that’s just something that you accept as a reality of keeping them.
In their foraging, ducks can take on a lot of pests, most notably slugs and snails. This makes them ideal candidates to integrate with mushroom production (see more on this in Farming the Woods), as well as other cropping systems susceptible to slug damage. They will avoid doing harm to all but the most tender of plants while seeking out these pests, including mature adults, young, and eggs. Ducks are incredibly thorough, and your plantings and crops will thank you for incorporating them.
Like chickens, some breeds are better for meat, others for eggs, while some are touted as “mixed” and can provide a little of both. Our experience dictates that it’s best to choose one yield or another, and focus on that. For meat, Muscovy, Rouen, and Pekin are the better breeds, while Khaki Campbell and Cayuga ducks are our favorites for eggs (though only Khaki lay prolifically).
Ducks are pleasant to have and easy to care for, provided your landscape can handle their near-constant quacking and chatter. We use a multilayered approach to deterring potential threats: a few male guard geese, a hot fence, and our dogs.
Of all the poultry options, geese may be the best one if your goals are mainly weeding, some pest control, and avoiding damage to crops, especially those occupying the herbaceous layer. Studies have found geese to be more effective than chickens in this capacity. Of all the poultry, geese can sustain themselves the best off pasture alone, and this in combination with their preference for grass situates them to be an excellent potential addition to orchards, fruit and nut plantings, and even Christmas tree farms.
That said, geese can be a pain, especially during breeding season. Some breeds are more aggressive than others, which can help reduce predation, and even protect other birds such as ducks and chickens from threats. The concept of “weeder” geese suggests that they have long been valued for this activity.
Geese are perhaps the most intelligent among the poultry, and the most likely to imprint on people. This can be problematic, especially if you live in an area with predator pressure and would find some aggression desirable. It’s a fine balance, to train geese to be reasonable with people, but otherwise on guard. Careful choice of breed, along with some training, will reduce the chance of a minor disaster on the farm. At the same time, aggressive birds can come after humans and children alike.
The general care of geese is very similar to that of ducks, where they need access to a significant amount of water. They often do well integrated with other poultry, and even with small ruminants on some farms. Markets for geese products are highly localized and unproven, with meat birds the most likely outlet.
Potential Applications for Poultry—and Many Unknowns
A good strategy for integrating poultry into silvopasture follows the logic that a particular species can be matched to the situation and need of a given system, all while yielding marketable products in meat or eggs. The opportunity presented by silvopasture is to enhance their environment and comfort, and provide some beneficial services to productive systems. While they can exist on their own, poultry seem best positioned to integrate and support other elements on the farm, such as:
Pairing with other animals. Chickens or turkeys can follow large animals like cows to help break down manure and integrate it into the soil; ducks and geese can reduce snails and slugs that transmit parasites to sheep and goats.
Pairing with other tree and woody crop systems for pest control. You can use geese very successfully to weed berry and orchard plantings, or ducks to prevent slug damage to woodland mushroom production.
Pairing with one another. Geese or guinea fowl provide protection for more vulnerable birds, while a mix of chickens and ducks will provide a mix of rooting, digging, scratching, and tilling.
In the end farmers tend to settle on the animals that work practically, provide a positive emotional experience from interaction, and interact well with their system. There is no right or perfect option for all situations, but rather one or more for a particular scenario.
With poultry, what we don’t know in regard to silvopasture certainly exceeds what we do. The interactions mentioned above are, at best, good concepts. Of all the animals, birds are the most easily integrated into trees and forests, with the least potential for inflicting long-term harm. Practitioners are advised to proceed with an exploratory mind, ideally seeing poultry as a support member of a larger ecological farm system.
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