I have always raised laying and broiler chickens in fixed housing because I always thought it to be easier. I did not have to worry about predators or the birds getting out and because I bring the greens to them, I feel I am getting them the food stuffs they would eat if they free range. It is a little extra work, but the biggest thing about fixed pens though is that it involves more work because I now have to clean their pen. So this year, I am going to try using a moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor to raise some pasture raised chicken.
What is Pastured Poultry
Simply put, Pastured Poultry is raising poultry on pasture that is covered with grasses, weeds and the like. The Manitoba Department of Agriculture in their article Pastured Poultry define it as "an intensive method of raising a large number of chickens on a small piece of land. Under this system, birds are housed in mobile shelters with roofs and side walls but no floors; the birds sit on the grass under the shelters."
Typically, raising pastured poultry involves a chicken tractor AKA moveable chicken coop that is moved every day or every other day across the pastures. Although Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms could be considered the lead on making profits from using chicken tractors, a number of others have also provided alternative ways to follow the same motivation such as John Suscovich, Homesteading Family, Stoney Ridge Farmer and Living Traditions Homestead, to name a few. There are also some, such as Justin Rhodes and Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms, that have found the use of Premier 1 Electric Poultry netting in combination with a portable shelter to work well for them. Although there are many, many more out there and each one has their own special design and/or methodologies, the basic principle is always the same. Namely, get the birds onto grass.
Why Pastured Poultry
I could suggest that raising pastured poultry does not necessarily mean that you have to take the birds to the grass if you take the grass to the poultry. Both result in grass fed chicken or grass fed turkeys. I have done this very thing for all the years I have raised birds, including a daily feeding for the layers as well.
Where I live there are a number of air and land predators that would view a chicken as a quick meal. And so because of that, I have always raised my layers, meat birds and turkeys in enclosures that allows for the birds to go inside and outside at will, but provides protection from the air and land predators. Some would suggest that this is actually a free range or free run set up and by definition, they would be right. But I would suggest that what blurs the definition into a pastured poultry type set up is that they are given green grass every day, one of the goals of raising pastured poultry.
Although I can say (touch wood) that I have not lost a bird to land predators thus far using this type of enclosure, I can't say I have not lost birds to air predators despite the top of the run being enclosed as I did have an owl take down two turkeys when it found a hole in the top of the chicken wire. I guess I am behind on maintenance.
There are many reports claiming the health benefits of pasture raised chicken and although I don't disagree that there are benefits, due to the variability in feed and pastures I do question whether it is as good as some claim. Rosebank Farms in their article Why Pasture Raised Poultry? state that "In addition to being lower in calories and total fat, pasture-raised poultry have higher levels of vitamins, and a healthier balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats than conventional meat" and further go on to say that "Free-range chickens have 21% less total fat, 30% less saturated fat and 28% fewer calories than their factory-farmed chickens.". The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association states in the article The Nutrition of Pasture-Raised Chicken and Meats that "Pasture-raised chicken meat tends to be higher in iron, higher in Omega 3, have a lower Omega 6:3 ratio, and be higher in antioxidants (Vitamin E, for example). Pasture-raised eggs have higher Omega 3s, a lower Omega 6:3 ratio, increased vitamin D, and more antioxidants.".
As others have attested, I do believe there is some benefits to having the birds out on pasture 24/7. However, according to the Manitoba Agriculture department in their article Pastured Poultry, raising poultry on pasture does not reduce your feed consumption by 20 - 30% because "the grass is 75% water" and the birds can only "get 5 - 10% of their nutrition from the grass". They further go on to say that raising pastured poultry does not result in higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids because "unfortunately, poultry do not digest grasses or legumes in the same manner" as cattle. And as stated in Is There Grass Fed Chicken? What About Grain Free Chicken? by Cairncrest Farms, "Chickens can digest grass, but they can't digest it efficiently enough to only eat it."
I can agree with facets of each of these articles, and why I believe that bringing the grass to the poultry is an effective, albeit more labor intensive, way of getting the grass to the birds. One thing bringing the grass to the birds does show is how much grass the poultry will actually not eat and confirms as stated by Cairncrest Farms that "Rather than eating a lot of one thing, like a cow with grass, chickens try to eat the very best parts of a lot of things. They will certainly peck tender shoots of grass and clover, but they also seek out seed, scratch up ants, and so on.".
So if I believe that I am emulating pasture poultry, why then am I trying Pastured Poultry this time?
What are other reasons to raise pastured poultry?
Despite the perceived health benefits to humans there are a number of added benefits such as:
- No coop cleaning - as you can imagine, when you have a number of birds in one location 24/7 they generate a lot of nitrogen rich manure. By having the poultry in chicken tractors AKA moveable chicken coops that are moved periodically, that manure is spread out across the land. And although it is a daily chore to move, I feel it will be less labor than having to fork out a coop multiple times a year.
- Fertilizing the land - Although it is possible to clean the coop and put the manure directly onto the pastures and/or gardens, or to compost it first, raising pastured poultry helps to do all that right away and add to soil health and sustainability as identified in The Poultry site article Pastured poultry farming: soil health and sustainability As quoted in this article it is " good for soil health. The chickens will on feed insects including the non-beneficial insects in the Soil Food Web. The chickens will eat the weed seeds reducing to eliminating weed pressure and improving the pasture vegetation’s root system. The roots hold the soil in place, improve soil structure, increasing water infiltration and improving soil biology with increased root exudates feeding the microbes. The chicken litter is high in phosphorus, helping low-phosphorus pastures."
- Less localized nitrogen concentration - Because pastured poultry are moved across the pasture or lawn, there is less buildup of manure and less chance of hard rains washing nutrient rich water into water bodies.
- Disease control - As the Manitoba Department of Agriculture identifies in their Pasture Poultry article "Moving the shelter regularly will reduce the number of droppings that the chickens eat and lower the chances that they will become infected with coccidiosis (the most common type of intestinal parasite in chickens).". And having experienced Erysipelas in a turkey flock from one of my pens, this is a real consideration. However although Pastured Poultry sounds like it would alleviate problems, there can still be some problems as identified in the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association article Common Causes to Pastured Poultry Mortality and Illness. And of course, one can not dismiss the outbreaks of Avian Influenza that we are currently experiencing around the globe.
- Less expensive than housing and permanent fencing - Because the chicken tractor AKA moveable chicken coop can be built out of materials I have laying around, the cost is kept down. Although I could build one out of new materials, the costs of the materials would be substantially less than building a chicken house with a sizeable run outside.
DIY Moveable Chicken coop
Although I like the Idaho A-frame chicken tractor for its ease of entry and longevity, the amount of wind I get is concerning with this design. I also liked the hoop house design for ease of build and access, but the use of tarps is less than desirable. And, I would have to buy cattle panels.
So after much consideration of the information I have, I decide on a design for my moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor based on the Joel Salatin design, but a little smaller and a little taller.
The build of the DIY Moveable Chicken coop
In order to keep the cost down on this build and to use as much recycled product as I could, I decided to use what lumber I had available and so the size was somewhat dictated by what I had available. I also wanted to ensure that the approximately 60 birds had about 1.5 - 2.0 square feet each as recommended by the Manitoba Department of Agriculture. As the plan is to harvest some of the birds for smaller type birds, the 60 birds should have more than enough room with the 1.5 square feet per bird in the 9.5' X 9.5' DIY moveable chicken coop AKA Chicken tractor.
The plan for this year is to move the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor around my yard site. As my yard is far from level and is on a bit of a hill, I wanted this DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor to have some substance but yet be moveable by hand. So I decided to assemble the base using some recycled 2X6 that were about 9.5 feet long.
I then rooted around and found some treated 4x4's that would work for corner supports. I cut them to 3' tall to give me room to crawl inside if I needed but still allow me to enter over the top rail. I also knew that it would be better to have it all flush on the outside, but I was going for ease of build and wanted the tin I was putting on the sides later in the process to be recessed. So attaching the uprights was done on the inside of the base.
More recycled 2 X 6's complete the top rail. They are not in the best shape but they are solid and will work for now.
To add some strength to the structure and to give me something to add the top nailing rails to, I added some additional uprights made from 2 x 6, cut to 3' long and attached at the locations needed to fit the metal I was using for the roof.
It was then time to attach the top nailing rails to add extra strength and somewhere to attach the metal roofing to.
It still needed more bracing and some additional support for the metal roofing, so some cross bracing was added.
It was now time to attach the chicken wire. I decided that for this DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor I wanted to use a 1" mesh chicken wire. As I only had 1 1/2", I did buy a new 4' high roll for this purpose at a cost of about $40.00 CDN. I covered the one section of roof that will not have metal with the wire and stapled it in place. I then moved to the corner and stapled it to the frame of the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor. I then unrolled the wire along the side to the opposite corner and stapled the wire in multiple places to the bottom rail.
Once stapled in place, stretching the wire by gently pulling upwards and back on the wire, I was able to fasten the wire to the top rail.
I repeated the process continuing around all sides of the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor until the entire structure was wrapped in chicken wire. I continued the wire about one foot past the last upright, cut the wire so that it left a little tab that I was able to fold around the back wire to secure it.
This makes the seam look a little neater and will help prevent anything from getting between the two layers of chicken wire.
I was then able to deal with the excess foot or so of wire at the top of the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor. Just like folding the excess paper on a present, fold down the one side, staple it in place and then fold the other over top and staple it in place.
Time to make the corners a little neater and to draw the wire in to the 4 X 4. There is enough room between the wire and the 4 x 4 that a bird could go in there so snugging it down makes it less likely.
With the excess there was at the entrance side of the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor, I decided to cut it and fold it over the top rail. I stapled to the structure on the inside.
With every new roll of wire comes a thin piece of the same wire to "sew" overlaying wires together. I had one length to sew by threading the sewing wire through both pieces of wire, wrapping as I went. The ends were wrapped to secure in place.
This resulted in the two layers of wire being sewed together to prevent anything from crawling between the layers.
It is now time to attach the center section of the roof. I am using some recycled metal roofing for this purpose and attaching with 1 1/2 deck screws. Also debating about attaching detachable wheels to the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor.
Because the birds would have no protection from a side wind, I put some recycled metal roofing on the sides of the structure, attaching with 1" deck screws. I totally enclosed one end of the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor and about half of the adjoining sides.
I decided that I was not going to worry about hinges for the entrance to the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor. But rather, I would just move it out of the way when I needed to enter and secure it in place with a weight when I need the entrance to be closed.
Although I will be attaching the wheels so that I can move to whichever side I need for movement of the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor, it is now ready to be put in place and have the birds put into it.
To attach the wheels, I will drill a 1/2 inch hole at each corner so that I can insert a 6" long threaded 1/2" rod to which the wheels have been attached. I had to buy the wheels and threaded rod at a cost of around $55.00. I will drill the holes into each of the two outside edges of the 4x4's at a height that will allow for about 1/2 inch of the solid wheel to be below the bottom rail. This will allow me to easily remove the wheels when I need the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor to rest on the ground. And will allow me, through wheel placement, to move it forward, sideways or turn it around.
Only time will tell what I think of this DIY moveable chicken coop AKA Chicken tractor and how well the birds will do is yet to be seen. But for a minimal cost of around $115.00 CDN, if I don't like it, no big deal as I can use everything elsewhere.
Even if there is not that much of a health benefit to being on grass, the birds will benefit from the fresh air, sun and green grass in whatever quantities they want. That's a win. And for me, it will save the effort of having to clean yet another pen and will fertilize and dethatch my lawn.
I do know for certain that I will not be converting my laying hens over to this type of housing. I will continue as I have it set up. At least for now.
I hope you enjoyed this exploration and build of the DIY moveable chicken coop AKA chicken tractor. If you did and If you enjoy this content, please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community. By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site.
Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a modern world.
- Homesteading family - What to look for in a chicken tractor
- Melissa K Norris - YEAR ROUND Chicken Tractor & Coop IMPROVES Your Ground & Health of Chickens
- Living Traditions Homestead - SHE Was a HUGE HELP! The Chicken Tractors Are Done!
- Living Traditions Homestead - This Hoop Coop Will Be Homestead Perfect!
- Penn State Extension - A Quick Guide to Raising Pastured Broilers
- Farm Marketing Solutions - What is a chicken tractor?
- Manitoba Department of Agriculture - Poultry Rations and Feeding Methods (June, 1945)
- Stoney Ridge Farmer - You've never seen anything like this! Cool chicken coop ideas for "grass fed" poultry!