North Central SARE From the Field Profile
Farmers Study Multiple Benefits of Chickens and High Tunnels
Examining the Practicality of Incorporating Chickens into a Diversified High Tunnel Rotation System
The Neff Family Farm is on 13 acres, 10 tilled. The Neffs grow vegetables and herbs on old wheat ground. The soil was damaged and not very productive. Poultry has been part of the operation for a long time but the birds had not been incorporated into the rest of the farm in a sustainable manner.
The Neffs created six study plots, each measuring 20 ft. x 24 ft., and implemented a two-year rotation that included various combinations of herbs, vegetables, strawberries, chickens, and fallow. Straw and wood chips were used as a weed barrier.
• Plot 1 had a low tunnel that received two crop rotations each year.
• Plot 2 had no tunnel.
Four plots had high tunnels, each a different style:
• Tunnel 1 – 3-ft. sidewalls with roll-up sides; tallest tunnel at 15 ½ ft. tall. The chickens spent the most time in this tunnel (two rotations).
• Tunnel 2 – 7-ft. Lexan (rigid) sidewalls
• Tunnel 3 – Quonset style with roll-up sides
• Tunnel 4 – 3-ft. sidewalls
Coverings used for high and low tunnels included plastic, shade cloth, insect fabric, and spun row cover (floating row cover); sometimes high and low tunnels were uncovered. Chickens were rotated through the plots to provide heat inside tunnels, fertilization, insect control, and ground maintenance.
The Neffs offset the chickens’ tendency to “home” — go back to their original location — by making their night quarters mobile so that when they were relocated, they still identified with their house.
The first year chickens were moved through Tunnels 1 and 2 and Plot 1. The pH of these
plots showed no significant change but nitrogen increased when tested at six months. In Tunnel 1, yields were up 50 percent in lettuce, Swiss chard, and okra. In plots where poultry cleared past plant material, organic matter was higher at the 18-month test.
Only Plot 2 with no covering had no significant change in nitrogen; chicken manure broke down faster on covered plots. On plots with chickens, grasshoppers were reduced; other pests seemed more controlled under spun row cover.
The greatest success was in heat management. The Neffs ran brooder chicks under the plant benches in Tunnel 3 which was used for transplants. The heat from the chicks kept the tunnel from freezing even when the temperature dropped to 20 degrees outside. The chicks’ body heat was enough to melt snow off the high tunnels, and it proved sufficient to maintain the health of tomato transplants without additional heat.
View Katie Neff's presentation on this project, from the 2012 Farmers Forum, through NCR-SARE's YouTube playlist. Visit www.youtube.com/NCRSAREvideo for this and other videos.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FNC10-827, Examining the Practicality of Incorporating Chickens into a Diversified High Tunnel Rotation System.
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Project products are developed as part of SARE grants. They are made available with support from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed within project products do not necessarily reflect the view of the SARE program or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.