If you have been following WPP on instagram, you may have noticed a recent picture of a chicken standing on my heifer, Black Licorice. I titled it “Symbiosis in the Barnyard.” Symbiotic relationships are incredibly important on the farm. In order to keep animals healthy and ensure that their environment mimics what life would be like for them if they lived on the open range in the wild, symbiosis is an absolute necessity.
You have probably seen nature documentaries of animals such as water buffalo with wild birds perched on their backs or buzzards hopping around a pack of lions chowing down on their prey. Birds of all kinds are crucial to success of the ecosystem whether they are cleaning up after herbivores like cattle or sheep or carnivores like lions and tigers.
Chickens, in this case, serve in their vital role in a couple of ways. The cattle are not only tolerant of the chickens, but are practically blind to the chickens! This has upsides and some serious downsides. The simple downside: Chickens are mighty prone to getting stepped on by the blundering giants who have no clue that stomping on chickens is not going to go well for the chicken. Thankfully, chickens are pretty quick to hop out of the way in most cases. The positives of this awesome relationship are numerous though!
Chickens aren’t vegetarians. Did you know that?! They are serious omnivores and eat a huge variety of foods. Chickens nimbly peck at seed heads on the pasture plants but also scratch around for insects. The most fun to watch is a a chicken carefully snatching gnats out of the air! When chickens snag a bug too big to swallow in a single bite, they will essentially play “keep away” with one another as they try to find a safe space to break apart the bug and much down their prize. But how does this apply to sheep and cattle?!
Well, herbivores make a lot of poo. Fibrous grasses and legumes are digested quite efficiently by these animals, but it still makes for lots of raw fertilizer. What likes poo too? Flies. Flies are quick to lay eggs in cow patties. Dung beetles also get to work on breaking down the excrement. Chickens have an innate understanding of this and go searching for the little critters that have found their way into the piles. Chickens scratch apart the piles of poo in search of any bugs they can eat. Sure, it sounds gross, but this is what chickens were designed to do.
In addition to eating the fly larva and other bugs, the act of scratching the patties up means that the grass it has smothered can see the light of day again and allows the ground to more easily absorb the nutrients from the poo. It leads to a healthier pasture and fewer insects that will bother the sheep and cattle. Chickens will not just eat insects from the poo, but also eat them off the backs of the sheep and cattle and generally help keep them away.
Even the sheep are known to allow some back scratching from some brave chickens from time to time! During the winter, the sheep have thick, warm coats that insulate them so well that snow generally doesn’t even melt and freezing rain will form ice on their backs. The chickens are keen to lend a helping hand by pecking the ice chunks off the backs of the sheep for some water and even scratch snow off the sheep. Now, while the sheep don’t need this, it certainly seems that they don’t mind. I think they might even enjoy a nice chicken back scratch!
On a farm that allows symbiotic relationships, everyone benefits! The chickens get easy, healthy food and gain some extra daytime protection from hawks who are less inclined to snag a chicken with such large body guards. The herbivores deal with fewer insects and less stinky poo. Even the pasture benefits by being able to absorb the nutrients more efficiently! It’s a good life when they can all enjoy it together!