Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Chicken Chat

Our Cuckoo Marans' aren't "tractoring" like originally planned. Instead they are set loose to forage every day. Then they're locked up every night for their safety.

When Buck and I co designed and built our "chicken tractor" we were embarking on an experiment. We have had lots of chicken pens and lots of chickens over the years but they were always egg layers in permanent houses. Since we are in transition here at the Homestead, we needed a temporary solution to house our layers but we didn't want it to be wasted effort. What we decided was that we would build the pen we wanted for our future meat chickens and keep our layers in it until we get the hen house ready. We'd read a lot about Chicken Tractors for raising "grass fed" meat chickens and decided to try one out.

We built the house section out of 1"x 2" lumber and tin so it would be light and could be moved easily. We built the run part of it in 4 panels, out of 2"x4" lumber with pressure treated for the ground contacting areas.  We built what we felt was a minimum size for a dozen laying hens (5.3sf per bird) or 24 (2.6sf) meat birds because we were planning on moving it around often to keep the hens in fresh grass.
But despite our intentions, our tractor barely tractored anywhere. By the time we moved it 3 times we had discovered a few good things and a few not-so-good things.

It became very clear early in the process

A. It's not simple to move this big of a pen (not something I want to do every day) and a smaller pen would make the chickens miserable.

B. It would take a lot of ground devoted to one tractor to keep 12 chickens on grass. The grass just does not grow back fast enough. It took over 3 months for the grass to grow back in the first spot.

Pondering this I recalled that chicken manure is not good for plants until it is aged. Any gardener will tell you not to put fresh chicken manure on living plants or it will burn them (i.e. kill them) and I think that may be the number one reason the grass takes so long to come back. But even with optimistic math on grass regrowth, a moving Chicken Tractor would cover a lot of square footage before it could return to it's original placement.

Now, if your goal is to just kill grass in an area, for a new garden or something, then maybe this is the way to go.
C.  The Chicken Tractor can only be set on nearly perfect, level ground. If you have any kind of varmints who would like to eat a chicken dinner, you might want to think hard before using a Chicken Tractor.
There is no bottom on a Chicken Tractor. Having an enclosed bottom on your pen is the antitheses of a Chicken Tractor, the chickens can't scratch stuff up if there is wire in the way. Because there is no bottom wire, every time you move a Chicken Tractor into its new position, it must sit against the ground at all points so that nothing can crawl under and nab your sleeping chickens. That means no gopher holes or changes in grade of more than a couple inches, no little dips or stones.

Around here, that is a deal breaker.

We moved our pen pretty easily, me with the hand truck on my end and Buck on his end just lifting.

Since our long range plan is to move the laying hens into a more permanent house and have meat chickens in this pen, it's really great that we have learned all of this now.
All that said, I think the chicken house has been a real success. There are lots of great things about this chicken pen.
The addition of the wrap around windows of polycarbonate lets in light for us to clean and gather eggs.  These chickens do not try to roost in the trees (like so many good foraging breeds have a tendency to do) and I think it is partly because of these windows. I think they feel safer because they can see out the windows. I have noticed them watching me through the windows in the twilight, as I walk past. I'm sure all the natural light helps with their winter egg production too.

Buck created this sliding door which locks in place to shut the "Chunnel" at night.
Another innovation/invention is the "Chunnel".
"What is a Chunnel?" you might ask. Well, it's a tunnel for chickens!
It goes between the house part and the pen part.
It's an architectural feature that Buck invented. It has enabled us to have the house in two movable parts and also allowed us a little more leeway on the uneven ground. It allows the two units to sit at slightly different angles and elevations from each other and still sit flat enough to the ground to protect the chickens from raccoons and coyotes, who would happily crawl under any raised point in the perimeter, especially in winter and early spring when food is scarce.

The Chunnel is a weak link in this security since it is not structural, so Buck made a sliding-door-thing to seal off the house at night. I was very pleasantly surprised at how the chickens were completely unafraid to use the Chunnel.

A hen uses the "Chunnel"
The "Chunnel" locked for the night.
and open for the day.
 An accidental success is the "Scrap Hatch". When I realized, as I was assembling the panels, that I had put the chicken door into the top of the pen instead of the bottom, (doh!) I made a little square to plug it up. Then as I was screwing it in I fastened it in the center of each side which allowed it to swivel. I would like to take credit for the realization that it could be used to toss scraps in easily but it was Buck who figured that one out.

An unexpected success was the tin roof I put onto the outdoor pen section. I only did this because I had scrap tin laying around. I have never put a solid roof on an outdoor chicken run before.

The chickens LOVE it. I have no idea why it took me so long to learn this one. They get plenty of sun when it is morning or afternoon, or in winter when the sun is low. But they don't get the scalding, high noon heat. When it is pouring down rain, instead of hiding in among the roosts, they happily scratch about under their tin roof, even if the door is open. Because of the roof they don't track a lot of mud into the nest box, so no muddy eggs!

One thing I wish I would have done is to make the house door open the other way. It would make it easier to fill their feeder. We keep the trash can that holds their feed at the back of the chicken house and the door gets in the way. I will change the hinges to the other side when I get some spare time...

Phoebe Adds Later:  I am not new to chickens. I have had chickens all my life (with a brief intermission in my early 20's) and I have dealt with all sorts of chicken problems. I thought that for those who are new and reading for their future chicken pen, I would put in an extra 2cents. I agree that deep litter and locking up at night are key to dealing with chickens in a high predation zone. I would also suggest a trick that has worked very well for me in all situations, from inner city to living in the middle of nowhere. It is a less extreme and much cheaper approach for the digging under issue than pouring cement.

If you just make your side wall wire too long at the bottom by about a foot or two and flair it, very flat, out along the outside ground and then throw dirt or chips or whatever over that "skirt" of wire, varmints will be completely flumixed by it. It's sort of the same science as a lobster pot.

The critters just don't get that they have to back up a foot to dig under and always try to dig right where the pen frame meets the ground. They dig with the wire a little and try somewhere else but if you are thorough with your wire skirt, they will not get in by digging under. One place you will want to put cement blocks or large heavy rocks into the ground is at the threshold of your doors, so you don't have the wire skirt dragging back and forth. This method has worked for many years for me, I have never had a dig-under since I started doing it.

I have always done this with my permenant coops but I am now trying to figure out how to do it easily with my mobile coop, that is destined to hold our meat chickens this summer.


  1. Excellent post Phoebe. Right now our 8 chickens free range in the pasture with the goats (when it isn't snowing that is). We'd like to get some meat chicks next spring, but will need a different arrangement for them. Your experience and tips are very helpful.

  2. Thanks Leigh, I was hoping it would be useful info. Let me know how you handle your meat chickens. We have been looking at these chickens http://www.jmhatchery.com/free-range-broiler/colored-range-chicks/prod_5.html?review=read#read_review

  3. Thanks for stopping by my blog and saying, "Hi!" I really like your chicken tractor. If you're not planning to get a lot more layers, it is actually a great design. If you don't like moving the coop section, you don't need to if you're doing meat birds in the warmer months. The pen section is enough, although most people have a wind bread on the north and/or west sides (or wherever your prevailing wind comes from. As for the grass taking three months to grow back, you need to move the chickens daily. We have a pattern that we cover in two weeks, and sometimes I start to feel like the grass should be mowed because it has no problem growing back and actually getting pretty tall in the two weeks before the chickens or turkeys get back to it.

  4. Welcome Deborah! That is very interesting about your grass. I am glad to hear that the grass will come back. Have you found a way to deal with uneven ground? I keep imagining some kind of curtain that expands and contracts, around the edge.
    I enjoyed reading your blog and am excited I found it. I have lots of catching up to do...
    Good luck with your book!

  5. We use large rocks or broken pieces of cinder block to fill in the holes and keep little chicks from escaping. Primitive, but it worked. This year, a friend volunteered to come over with his front loader to flatten out a rather large area for us, so we're excited about next year! The worst part about the uneven ground for us was when we moved the tractors because my husband put pop-up wheels on them, and the wheels would fall into holes, making it very hard to move. We're on our third chicken tractor model now. I think it's on my blog around October. It did not have to live through any big winds in the month we used it, so we shall see how it holds up next year.


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