"Lucille", a Rhode Island RedWe currently have 10 laying hens, 7 Rhode Island Reds and 3 ISA Browns. Last spring, we were just moving into our new house and didn't have a coop set up yet, so our step-dad offered to raise them from chicks for us. My husband threw himself into researching chicken coop design ideas and we quickly decided that a movable coop (also called a "chicken tractor") would be the best solution for us. He scrambled to design and build the coop, and we finally brought the birds home when they were between 2-3 months old.
Let me tell you a bit about the chicken tractor. The basic idea of the chicken tractor is that the coop is movable with an open bottom so that the chickens have constant access to fresh grass. In this way, the chickens are considered to be "pastured", but you avoid the risks of allowing them to be "free-ranging". When we built the coop, we planned on keeping the birds in it at all times, since we're surrounded by homes with dogs, a woods full of predators and have a busy road nearby. This coop worked great and the chickens had plenty of room (more space per chicken than recommended), but I still felt bad keeping them penned up. It was obvious they wanted to roam. So one day, we opened the coop and let them loose. And guess what? They didn't run away. We let them out in the evening, knowing that they wouldn't stray too far so close to bedtime. Chickens will always head home to roost before it gets dark, so there is no need to worry about them running away. Also, we discovered they really don't like to stray much farther than a few hundred feet from home. We were delighted by these discoveries and decided to free-range our ladies all the time.
The Chicken Tractor
Our chicken tractor is about 10'x4', more than enough space for 10 chickens to live comfortably. Some days we do keep them penned up all day (like when we're on vacation and wintertime), so it was important to make it large enough, but not too heavy that we would not be able to roll the coop around the yard. The roof of the coop is framed in with wood, but enclosed with the same mesh that was used on the sides of the coop. An old billboard canvas/tarp is stapled over the mesh to keep out rain and wind. Under the peak of the roof are the roosts. This is where the birds sleep at night, They simply fly up there when it's time for bed. On the end of the coop are the nesting boxes with a access door from the outside for gathering eggs. Originally, we had 6 nesting boxes, but had problems with the birds sleeping in the nesting boxes at night and pooping in them. So we closed off 3 of them and now they seem reluctant to poop in their nests. The coop has wheels on one end and wheelbarrow type handles on the other end. We simply pick up the one end and roll the coop to fresh grass each day.
There are many benefit of using a chicken tractor or free ranging the hens, but I think the primary benefit is manure management. Let me tell you, chickens poop. All day. All night. All the time. When they are confined to a stationary coop with a run, you better believe it's going to stink like chicken shit. And within days they will completely annihilate any vegetation in their run. Soon you are left with chickens running around on a poo-encrusted patch of bare ground that is hard as cement. This is no fun for you (stinky!) and no fun for the chickens. Chickens were designed to scratch and peck. It what God created them to do - it's their job, their role in the animal kingdom. By keeping chickens in a movable pen or a rotating pasture system, they are allowed to peck and scratch to their hearts content. As a bonus, they will scratch their manure into the grass, spreading it nicely. Our lawn has these rectangular patches of beautiful lush, green grass where ever the chicken tractor has been parked for a day. Who needs to spread fertilizer?!?
Another benefit is lowered feed costs. Chickens are omnivores, meaning they will eat almost anything (and yes, they can be cannibalistic). When chickens are allowed to be on pasture or free-range, they will supplement their feed diet with lots of tasty bugs, worms and even grasses and seeds. This variety of foods allows the animals to have a healthy, balanced diet at a lower cost for the owner.
I really cannot think of any cons to using the chicken tractor system, except the fact that the tractor needs to be moved every day. If you design it right, that task should take no longer than 30 seconds, at most. However, I can think of a few cons to free-ranging chickens, like we do most of the time:
1. Remember how chickens poop all the time? Well, they will poop everywhere - your deck, patio, driveway, in your garage if you keep it open... This bothered us at first, but now we're over it. It's just poop. Kind of inconvenient, but not a big deal.
2. Chickens are curious little buggers. Whenever my husband is working in the garage, they have to come check him out. And then they poop on everything. Having a campfire or party outside? Yup, they're going to crash the party and jump on your guests laps and eat their food. True story (sorry Maribeth). We've learned to keep them in the chicken tractor if planning a party.
3. There is always the risk of predation or being hit by a car. We have shockingly not lost a single bird to a predator (dog, fox, hawk, raccoon, etc.), but we did have one get hit by a car. That was sad, but it's a risk we are willing to take for the sake of healthier chickens and better tasting eggs. We think the fact that we have our 2 dogs roaming about the yard most of the day keeps other predators away.
We will continue to free-range our chickens as much as possible. I know it sounds quaint, but it makes it feel so homey to have chickens roaming around. And they make a great conversation starter. Heck, a few weeks back we had some uninvited Jehovah's Witnesses stop by. I always dread talking to them. But I shouldn't have worried. They were so enamoured with my chickens that they just handed me the pamphlet and peppered me with chicken questions instead. Whew. Saved by the chickens.
So when you stop on by, feel free to say hello to the ladies... but watch your step.