Thursday, September 22, 2016

Chicken Drives Around Our Back Yard

Since about Day 2 of having chickens, the idea of a chicken tractor has always intrigued me. Chicken tractor? First, take any notion of 4-wheeled farm machinery out of your head. Replace it instead with a lightweight, rectangular enclosure, covered with netting and a tarp and two wheels on one end that is the daytime playground for a small flock of chickens. 

The idea is that the tractor is moved around the yard where the chickens eat grass and bugs, poop a bit and enjoy the outdoors while staying put in the yard and protected from overhead hawk attacks. Because the chickens do eat a lot of the vegetation and scratch at the grass, the tractor needs to be moved daily so they don't destroy the lawn. Thus, each day they are fed, fertilize and mow the lawn, are exposed to the sun and have something new and interesting to do each day. Chickens, like any creature, need diversion as well.

Our flock of five in their new tractor.
By virtue of being lightweight, the tractor is fundamentally NOT ground-predator proof. A racoon, possum, ferret, fox or any other carnivorous predator could easily break into the tractor's light netting to have chicken dinner. But, since these predators are mostly nocturnal, the tractor is safe for the chickens during the day. Daytime predators include hawks, and the netting and tarp prevent raptor attacks. This means that the girls have to be moved (lured, cajoled, chased, treated and sometimes carried) from their safe night quarters (our chicken coop) to the tractor each morning and in the evening, they need to be moved (exhorted, wheedled, tantalize, treated and sometimes carried) back to the coop. 

As I designed the tractor, I wanted it to have multiple uses. In permaculture terms, this is called stacking functions, where the same object can be used for many purposes (functions).

The first function is obvious: the tractor provides an alternate place for the chickens to spend the day, which offers greens and bugs to eat. We have a long, narrow run along the side of our house and in the spring it's rich with weedy vegetation. But it doesn't take them long to mow it down to nothing but dirt, thistles and mint, which they don't seem to care for.

The next function is that chickens mow the grass. Literally, we don't have to mow the lawn any more. The 5'x8' size is large enough to travel around the entire yard in about two weeks, and small enough that the five chickens clip the grass down in one day.
One day of the chickens "mowing" the lawn. It's pretty obvious, you might even says shocking. But the
grass seems to bounce back very quickly after a one-day chicken clip.
But I wanted even more stacking functions (multiple uses) than lawn mowing and grass food for the chickens. One of the things I've always wanted to do was confine the chickens to our raised garden beds after the harvest, where they would eat fallen fruit and bugs, scratch the soil and deposit their poo exactly where we want it. So I built the chicken tractor to the same dimensions of our garden beds: 5 feet wide and 8 feet long. Our beds are 16 feet long, so this will be easy to set on the bed sides and move from bed to bed, allowing the chickens to do what chickens do best, make a mess while enclosed in their tractor.

But there were possibilities for yet more stacking functions. I reused a lot of materials that I had around the house, garage and garden. In fact, all I had to buy were three 2x4 boards (two 8-foot boards and one 10-foot board that I cut in half), and hardware such as hinges, latches and screws. With that, I made the tractor out of hoop house materials I had on hand. When the chickens move into their coop for the winter, I'll remove the tractor's nest box and shade tarp, throw some plastic over the hoops and plant spinach under it in October or November. Under that hoop house the spinach will germinate and grow, then stall in the winter, and start again very early in the spring. We'll have March and April spinach, well before our CSA will start delivering springtime greens.

AND, because I LOVE stacking functions, I won't plant spinach in one corner of the hoop house. In the winter I will start seeds in the basement under grow lights. In March or early April, I move them to a low hoop house next to the house where I keep extra watch on them, and heat as necessary with seedling mats. Once the weather moderates and the plants are heartier, but not ready to be planted, and have outgrown the low hoop house, I'll move them to this larger, taller hoop to harden off and get big before the chickens occupy it again in late spring.


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