Tuesday, May 1, 2012

About Free Ranging Chickens

Free Range Chickens are chickens that are allowed access to the outside world. While I would love for my chickens to access every nook and cranny of the ranch for the betterment of their diet and the detriment of bugs and weeds they love to chomp on, it's been a difficult decision that I've come to that I must limit them access to the great big world.

The reason why is simple: coyotes, racoons and a great big red tailed hawk. Predators plus chickens that fall asleep when the sun goes down equals dead chickens. I don't want my chickens dead. I want them alive and happily producing yummy eggs. So, with great sadness they have been penned by four wire walls and a wire roof to keep them safe. It still allows them access to bugs. They are still fed weeds from the garden and veggie scraps from the restaurants, but they are no longer on the menu for the local predators.

I've turned to another method of keeping chickens that involves turning them into compost makers. Chickens naturally love to scratch the earth seeking out food such as grains or bugs. I constantly have a supply of all types of organic waste material from the restaurant scraps to the garden trimmings and weeds. Tossing everything into the chicken yard atop a six inch layer of straw gives the birds something to do and an entertaining way for them to turn all of that organic matter into rich compost. For more on this method of keeping chickens, read this article: http://www.themodernhomestead.us/article/Composter+Chickens.html

Due to the predation losses of our hens and also due to the fact that we'd like to be able to eat some of our own farm raised chickens, we recently ordered in 26 assorted chicks from McMurray hatchery. They arrived on Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday and are currently home in the heated brooder until they're old enough to be released into the wild.

This second group of chickens will be raised in a rather large chicken tractor. The tractor will be mobile and can be placed in flat areas that have become overgrown with weeds. As the birds trim down the weeds and till the soil with their clawed feet, prepping it for planting later, they will be doing the majority of work that I just don't have time to get done.

I had planned to build my chicken tractor all by myself because it looked like a simple thing to construct. I purchased the supplies and stacked them neatly by my shed until such a time when I would have some extra time (Ha, like that ever happens!). I drew up some simple plans and printed out a nice picture of a chicken tractor I found online. My model would need minor modifications to make it something one person could easily move.

My neighbor, who regularly checks on me to be sure I haven't been squashed by my cow or eaten by my goats, was eyeing my pile of lumber and wire fencing with mild curiosity one morning. He asked what I had in mind to which I replied, "I'm going to build a chicken tractor."

"A what?"

"A chicken tractor. It's a movable pen and coop. Like a lawn mower powered by chickens," I explained.

He eyed me some more with a half grin on his face. "I've never heard of that."

"Oh, it's not a new idea," I told him. "People use them to control weeds."

"You think the chickens are going to eat those weeds?" He looked very skeptical now, but that's nothing new between us. Once more I am reminded that I was placed on this planet to entertain others with my oddness.

"Oh yes. They love weeds. That's who I've been feeding all the weeds I picked from your yard to. They like them better than the grains from the feedstore." Which is, in fact, true. That scoop of grains can go uneaten for quite a while if they have a pile of weeds before them.

I told him I had a picture of a chicken tractor which he asked to see. He laughed and nodded, giving me the benefit of the doubt.

A few days later he came back and asked to see the picture again. He went over the sizes of the lumber I'd bought. He puzzled over the picture some more and told me it was really bothering him how that thing was put together. It bothered him a lot. He really wanted to build it...

It's not quite done yet, but it bothered him so much that I have the frame of a chicken tractor sitting by my garden already...

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