Saturday, December 03, 2011

Book review: The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery

I've known of Harvey Ussery and his pioneering homestead flock techniques for years, since he started posting on the RunningOnEmpty2 peak oil listserve. Now he's written the book I wish I'd had when we started keeping chickens 6 years ago: a thorough guide with breadth and depth to all aspects of integrating poultry into a homestead food system, based on decades of experience working out details of permacultural, whole-systems approaches. Most importantly, he's spent at least the past 6 years experimenting with ways to adjust his methods to prepare for the changes peak oil, climate change, and economic disruptions will force on us all.

His book gives the usual basic information on keeping poultry: selecting species (from the range of waterfowl, geese, guineas, chickens, and some more exotic options); selecting breeds (if he could only keep one chicken breed with no further inputs of chicks and feed from outside he would keep Old English Games; if only one waterfowl he'd keep Muscovies); starting from day-old chicks; housing; watering; providing purchased feed; fencing (the hardest part for him to transition to non-industrial technology - he relies on electric fencing); protecting from predators; and killing & butchering. He includes detailed explanations for why he does things the way he does after years of working out his systems - very appealing to me with my brain that wants to understand why systems work the way they do, so that I can apply the principles to my own situation rather than just copying someone else's model.

The book really stands out from the other poultry guides I've read in its details on permacultural integration of chickens into the rest of the homestead: both for their inputs (feed produced on site) and for their outputs when putting them to work in mutually beneficial ways. His chickens process all his compost (some specifically as compost piles, some as part of their deep litter bedding system), turning it and breaking it down faster while finding much of their own food in the process. He details some excellent twists on the chicken tractor theme. He describes multiple interlocking strategies for providing feed including cover crops eaten by and tilled into new beds by his chickens; sprouting grains; making comfrey & nettle "hay"; and the infamous use of "recomposers" such as vermiculture worms, blow fly maggots and soldier fly larvae. (I've successfully used his bucket-based "maggot farm" in the past to convert roadkill, meat scraps, and wet cat food into delightfully squirmy chicken feed.)

Interestingly, because of his whole-systems approach to keeping his chickens fed a good diet with plenty of rotating grazing pasture and well ventilated, dry shelter, his chapter on chicken health might be considered "useless" in comparison to other books detailing how to treat this or that disease or parasite. He simply hasn't had to deal with more than a handful of problems raising thousands of individuals over almost 30 years, because he just keeps his birds healthy!

I learned the most from the chapters on breeding; I've never had to think about this since we can't keep a rooster in the city anyway. I had vague notions of letting our flock in Hawaii free-range and make babies as they saw fit, culling to select for future breeders. But this book opened my eyes to the fact that allowing free breeding in a small flock quickly results in loss of productivity in new generations from inbreeding depression. So despite my goal of having very minimal hands-on control over our Hawaii flock, I will probably adopt the "spiral mating" method and some active selection over who breeds with whom. I may post a separate discussion of this topic and my thoughts for Hawaii.

My biggest complaint about the book is that it doesn't do me much good now! (But that's not the book's fault.) Had I read it 6 years ago, I'd have had a much more realistic idea of how to integrate chickens into our site, and I'd have made better design and management decisions here. If I were staying at this site, or even moving elsewhere on the mainland (such as to northern California as originally planned) I could apply many of the book's lessons. But we're moving to Hawaii, with minimal predator pressure, mild climate meaning no need for formal shelter, ample acreage producing forage year-round, and a food system dominated by food forest with the chickens running freely everywhere beneath. So most of the techniques based on directing chicken activity through loose confinement won't apply to our situation.

I have only one other minor complaint: I noticed maybe 15-20 occurrences of Ussery repeating himself, giving the same information (even using the same phrasing) in multiple places. Sometimes this seems justified (warnings about something with potential significant danger to the health of the poultry), and in some sense I can understand it as part of the whole-systems approach - the book has to be divided into discrete chapters with specific focus, but much of the information falls under multiple categories and makes sense to present with each of them. But often it comes across as sloppy editing.

All in all, a must read book for anyone in the beginning stages of keeping poultry or not satisfied with their current systems and their resiliency as imported resources become tighter. And even those experienced flocksters with a well-developed, functional system can likely learn a trick or two!

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