John Kenny of Big Train Farm in Cranston, RI uses a four-step process to prepare his fields for planting. After a cash crop is finished, his 100 Black Australorp chickens clean up any crop residue. John said his chickens love green tomatoes.
John spreads compost and then runs a chisel plow across the field to deeply loosen and aerate soils without inversion – thus maintaining soil structure. He amends soils as needed to balance available nutrients using rates indicated by soil tests. John then adds micronutrients like Diatomaceous Earth (DE) for silica and micronized azomite.
John plants buckwheat for fast, midsummer cover before a late summer planting of cabbages, radishes and beets. Fall-planted rye or oats, vetch and clover over-winter cover and are cleared by chickens in the spring, preparing fields for late springing plantings of summer crops (nightshades, cucurbits, etc).
A way to increase soil organic matter and reduce weed pressure is with mulch. Organic practices include covering soil to prevent or minimize compaction from tractor tires, foot traffic or heavy rains. Each fall, John invites local landscapers to drop off leaves from their fall clean up. As the leaf piles grow, John’s cost for purchased straw drops. Each spring, John spreads the leaves across the farm and orders just enough baled straw for the remaining rows.
Since adding chickens to his rotations, John has seen his fruit set begin 1-2 weeks earlier. Input costs have dropped, offsetting the cost of the chicken tractor, netting charger and chicks. John now spreads just 2 yards of purchased compost per 6 foot by 150 foot bed without application of NPK fertilizers. Every two weeks, John’s 100 chickens put down 350 pounds of manure or approximately 3 pounds Nitrogen, 4.5 pounds Phosphorous and 1.5 pounds of Potassium. John calculates that his chickens put down $60 worth of manure every two weeks.
The income from 6-7 dozen eggs collected daily more than offsets the cost of supplemental poultry feed and mineral supplements. John feeds Poulin Layer Pellets and Crystal Creek Poultry Pro. Pastured chickens graze on cover crops, crop residues and insects as well as crop seconds or outer leaves. John said his chickens really love oats, Bok Choi and any type of squash. John calculates the income and feed cost for his chickens. He typically sells ¾ of the eggs collected over two weeks to bring in $315. John’s grain costs are $140 every two weeks. His net income (without overhead) is $235 every two weeks ($60 fertilizer savings + $315 egg income – $140 chicken feed).
John offers his chickens about 4,500 square feet for 2-3 weeks at a time. John knows it is time to move the chickens when they get loud or agitated. The next morning, John and an assistant can move the fence setup and chicken tractor in about an hour. Once on new ground, the chickens forage quietly.
When snow covers the ground, the farm’s chickens spend the winter in a portable hoop house. To protect the poly sides, John installs chicken wire inside the perimeter. A vent fan keeps the air fresh in the hoop house through the winter. The sides can be rolled up on warm days.
A cover crop will not have time to sprout in the cold in the chicken’s final area each fall. To prevent the manure’s nutrients from volatilizing and to cover the soil, John spread compost and leaves over the last outside area. John found the leaves to be too messy and mucky. Inside the hoop house, he uses pine shavings, which absorb the wet manure. In spring, bedding will be spread or removed from the area where the greenhouse overwintered.
John Kenny led a workshop at Big Train Farm for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Rhode Island (NOFA/RI) called “Raise Better Vegetables with Chickens in Crop Rotations” as part of their free, Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training (CRAFT) workshop series.