Farming with Chickens
The Montemaggiore workforce more than doubled recently with the addition of 15 chickens! These little girls (and one rooster) are now happily eating bugs in the vineyard, scratching around the vines to keep the native grasses down, and improving the fertility of the soil. Soon, they will also be providing food for our table in the form of eggs (yes, just the eggs). Chickens offer so many benefits, not to mention the entertainment they provide—who would have expected!
In February, we bought three baby chicks each of five different varieties and raised them in Paolo’s bathtub under a heat lamp. After a couple weeks they grew too big (and Paolo complained they were keeping him up at night), so we put them in a big watering trough in the garage. Then in April, the chickens became too big for the garage, so they are now out in the vineyard earning their keep. Their primary job is to eat cutworms and cane borers, which destroy new buds and even entire grapevines—the only problem is that we haven’t quite figured out how to train the chickens to eat the worst insects and not the beneficial insects like ladybugs.
Our flock of chickens represents five different varieties: Rhode Island Red, Barred Rock, Buff Orpington, and two types of Americauna. We had no grand plan for choosing these particular varieties, although they will provide us with eggs of many different colors: green, blue, brown, and white. They sleep overnight protected from the elements in a mobile chicken coop that Vincent and Paolo built as a replica of our winery (including the door). A solar-powered and solar-activated system opens the door as the sun rises, and the chickens know they must go back in the house as the sun goes down (before the door automatically closes).
We had two pleasant surprises regarding our chickens. The first surprise was that our dog has not bothered them even though he is a Pointer, thus a bird-hunting dog. As a puppy, Zeppli had terrorized and decimated our neighbor’s flock of chickens so we had reason to worry. In order to teach Zeppli that the chickens are part of our family, we let him see and sniff the chicks almost daily as they grew—and he pretty much ignores them now. Our second surprise regarding the chickens is how entertaining they are. When Vincent whistles for them in the vineyard, they all come running to him. Paolo will catch them, stroke them, and even put them on his head. We just sit there and watch them for hours. Okay not hours, but longer than you would think!
Animals have been integrated into farms for centuries, and represent one of the main tenets of Biodynamic farming (differentiating it from Organics). Of course this was the way that Vincent’s father farmed in Italy many years ago, and we see it as a modern way to reduce our dependency on oil. While its a small thing, chickens both fertilize the vineyard (most manufactured fertilizers are made from petroleum) and reduce the need for mowing. Stay turned for further developments in our efforts to reduce our dependency on oil (thus reduce the risk of oil spills)—we’re going Solar! But that’s a whole other story that we’ll save for the next newsletter.