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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Pest Eating Chickens Play Role in Creating Sustainable Agriculture Systems

August 12, 2012 |

When Malena Laylin first moved to Virginia, she wanted a place to not only raise a family, but raise animals as well.

“We got our chickens in the spring of 2006 when the local producer of pastured, organically-fed chicken eggs stopped selling.” Not interested in buying conventionally grown and processed meat and produce, Laylin and her family sought a way to ensure a steady supply of fresh and sustainable food.

“We started out with eight [chickens] that first year, and we are now up to between 30 and 40, including the roosters.” These birds give Laylin and her family 6-7 dozen eggs a week in the winter and even more to barter with in the summer.

As her family became flush with eggs, Laylin started to notice something many other managers of free-range livestock have discovered: In addition to being great for eggs, meat and entertainment, chickens are excellent at pest control.

“I have found that they eat different things depending upon what they learn to be tasty, perhaps as chicks. The ones we have right now love ticks, stink bugs, crickets, slugs, worms, and other bugs and animals.”

Without meaning to, Laylin and her family became part of a larger movement in organic and free-range food management, one that is starting to emphasize animals’ capabilities rather than their requirements. Instead of keeping livestock as passive receivers of management, organic agriculture has started to recognize livestock as active participants in creating sustainable agricultural systems.

With chickens, the benefits seem obvious: they are egg and meat-producers, creators of natural fertilizers and when left to their own devices, will gladly tear apart a field in search of worms, grubs and other treats. Moreover, permitting chickens to consume insects can allow managers to reduce the amount of protein in their diet (3) which can greatly impact a chicken’s flavor (2).

Laylin notes that the only downside to the improved flavor is that “you can no longer tolerate eating what the rest of the world calls eggs.”

So if chickens are perfect for converting pests into fresh eggs or delicious meat, why aren’t more farmers using them as a natural biological control agent?

Laylin is the first to admit that chickens are just not “forest-wise”.  She finds them to be too domesticated to let them run around on their own, as “they are more likely to sacrifice themselves to the local predator population.” Letting them run free can also expose them to more diseases and increases the risk of mortality. These factors require her to keep the hens in enclosures or let them free in well-guarded, restricted areas.

“During nine months of the year, they roam a one-acre fruit orchard, freely going in and out of a tractor [coop] that is surrounded by a portable electric mesh fence.We move them weekly to take advantage of fresh grass and bugs.” This keeps them safe, while still allowing them to hunt pests.

This style of management isn’t just good farming, it’s good science.  Researchers have noted that fruit trees within 100 meters of a hen house have fewer insects. In addition, releasing chickens into apple orchards can reduce the number of apple sawflies by as much as 75%. Meanwhile, keeping chickens under pear trees decreases potential skin damage from midges (3).

Plants aren’t the only agricultural organisms that poultry can protect, as they can be used to manage pests that infect other livestock as well.

Researchers have suggested that chickens, when intermixed with cattle, could feed on ticks while providing farmers with an additional source of fresh meat and eggs. In fact, when allowed to graze with cattle on an African savanna, they consumed as many as 81 ticks per bird per hour (4). A delicious treat for the birds equaled a health-preserving cleansing for the cows.

The effect of poultry on reducing ticks is something Laylin has noticed with her free-range guinea hens in Virginia. “Since we’ve had them around, we have had very few ticks, which is awesome considering most of us have dealt with Lyme at least once in this family.”

She also notes that guinea hens are a little more “forest-wise” than chickens. She says they can run free “without ending up as lunch for one of the foxes, coyotes, bobcats, raccoon, opossum, or skunks that live up here in them thar hills.”

Chickens and guinea hens aren’t the end-all of pest management, however. Laylin notes that though her chickens are great insectivores, they are not great weeders. “They will eat weeds,” she says, “though I don’t think they would be useful for weed control, per se.”

This is something that has been echoed in the literature as well. Though great at pecking holes in plants and churning the soil looking for insects, chickens are not very effective at weed control. As a result, researchers have suggested integrating other poultry into organic agriculture, such as geese. These birds naturally consume weeds as part of their foraging behavior and can increase produce yields by eliminating competing plants (5).

From chickens to guinea hens to geese, poultry have the ability to change the way people perceive animals in agriculture, from the managed to the managers. Though Laylin and her family are part of a larger agricultural movement, her goal was always to grow wholesome food and reconnect with nature. She warns though, that chickens are a ‘gateway animal’.

“Once you get them, the next thing you know you might be tempted to try raising a few lambs, a duck or two, and maybe even some pigs.” If you don’t believe her, she says, just ask her husband.

Works Cited

  1. Hermansen JE, Strudsholm K & K Horsted (2004) Integration of organic animal production into land use with special reference to swine and poultry.  Livestock Production Science, 90:11 – 26.
  2. Horsted K, Allesen-Holm BH & JE Hermansen (2010) The effect of breed and feed-type on the sensory profile of breast meat in male broilers reared in an organic free-range system.  British Poultry Science Volume, 51(4):515—524.
  3. Pedersen HL, Olsen A, Horsted K, Kprsgaard M & B Pedersen.  Combined production of broilers and fruits.
  4. Samish M, Ginsberg H & I Glazer (2004) Biological control of ticks.  Parasitology, 129: S389–S403.
  5. Clark SM & SH Gage (1996). Effects of free-range chickens and geese on insect pests and weeds in an agroecosystem. American Journal of Alternative Agriculture, 11 , pp 39-47.

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