I was working on the chicken fences yesterday in the mist and gloom that is Vancouver Island in January and reflecting on just how long the project was taking me (forever) and how long it would last before I would be doing it all again (not forever, unfortunately).  Which took me in a downward spiral to thinking about how pointless it was …which was when I went and got a cup of tea and a leftover mince tart to get my perspective back.

The pointlessness really arises from the fact that the whole quarter acre that I have been busily rebuilding fence on throughout the last several weeks is used only for the layer flock. Despite all the now amazing fencing, no other creatures graze in there, I don’t grow any crops in there; the walnut tree is in one run and it is the only other productive element of the set up.  It’s the same with the pig paddock.  It’s lovely, but it’s just for pigs.  If I keep going this way, the whole farm will be compartmentalized into different bedrooms for every species, and as I heard Gabe Brown remark recently, I’ll be running a bed and breakfast for livestock, instead of having them out there getting their own breakfasts.

In theory all my fencing efforts are to allow me to use my rotation system better.  I am theoretically set up with 4 runs for the chickens to rotate through over the course of the year.  The theory is that I move them to a new run before the run they’re in gets eaten down/worn down too badly.  This allows the plants to regenerate, and breaks the parasite cycle.  This is all good.  But did you check how many times I use the word “theory” there?

In practice, the forage regenerates at different speeds depending on the seasons, how long it’s been resting, the weather, how big my flock is, etc.  Over the course of about 10 years, the runs are basically worn out more or less permanently.  There is some grass in there, but it’s not a kind the chickens like to eat.  There is a lot of thistle, which they definitely don’t eat.  Not much else.  I’ve tried to improve the situation by adding compost, manure, wood chip, etc.  I’ve tried re-seeding.  I’ve tried reducing the flock size, and I’ve tried only letting them into the run in the afternoons.

The fact is that sooner or later, chickens forced to stay in one place will destroy it.  Not only that, chickens develop favourite places within each run and will just go there all the time regardless whether there’s anything to scratch around for or not.

chicken chores ipod 003 small

The best that can really be said is that this system is an improvement on the dirt yard off the hen house that is the most common arrangement for layer flocks in these parts.  And that’s fine as far as it goes.  I also have a sheltered area called the lobby on the north side of their house filled with straw, which is where I throw scraps and goodies – they tear this up and do a good bit of scratching around, and every month or so I take all that scratched up, composted stuff and spread it, and put new straw in.  This is also a big step up from the normal hen house/dirt yard set up.  They access whichever run they’re in at the moment from this lobby.  On wet days, they prefer to stay in the lobby.  On hot days , they prefer the lobby.   If I didn’t have 14+ acres, I would be pretty happy with my set up.  Well, actually, if all I had was an acre and 1/4 of it was being used by this chicken run set up – well, it wouldn’t be, would it?  I’d have long ago turned part of it into a veggie patch or put goats in with the chickens or something.  Because it would be a waste of space.  I’m using this much space because I can, not because I should.

Once I had been restored by tea and mince tart I started thinking about Joel Salatin and what he says about stacking principles.  In the winter, his layer flocks inhabit hoop houses that are used for growing crops in the summer.  Some hens are in the building that houses the rabbit cages in the winter, scratching up the bedding under the rabbit cages.  When the birds are out on the fields in the summer, they are in various models of eggmobiles, portable henhouses sometimes surrounded by portable electric fence, rotating around the 100 acres or so of pasture, fertilizing, scratching and moving on.  In no case are the chickens in a single use housing situation. They are stacked with another enterprise.   Out on pasture, they’re following the cattle, sanitizing the pasture, providing some fertility themselves and moving on before any degradation starts.  Inside, they are in buildings that are also used for other purposes/livestock and their fertility and scratching power add their own functions to those buildings.

Salatin works to get multi-use out everything and every creature – there are many more examples available if you read any of his books or check out the myriad YouTube videos that feature himself or Polyface Farms.  He got the idea from permaculture, where stacking is also used – and permaculture got it from nature, where many flora and fauna interact in a kind of symbiosis.  Agroforestry and silvopasture are also techniques that get more than one function out of a patch of acreage.

So back to these chicken fences of mine.  I thought some time ago, working on the second fence in the system (I’ve just finished the third – only one big one to go!) that one way to improve this situation is to get some edible planting going on in these runs.  I was hacking away at a blackberry bush that was reaching from the middle of the run toward the fence, so I could have room to deal with the wire, and thinking I should just hack the whole thing down.  But I was reading Restoration Agriculture at the time, and I could hear Mark Shepard’s voice in my head reminding me how much the chickens love sheltering under those blackberries, safe from eagles and ravens, and how much I enjoy the berries for jam and cooking and even just a handful here and there.  I don’t necessarily want the brambles all over my fences, but a bush in the middle of the run might actually be a good thing.  So it got pruned back severely and left in place.  Still channeling Mr. Shepard I wondered about maybe planting some trees along my fences – apples, nuts.  The walnut tree in the first run is also a favourite hangout with the hens, providing shade and leaves to scratch around in, and since we love hazelnuts here maybe a couple of those could be in each run.  Mulberries – chickens supposedly love them.  Maybe I could plant grapes to train along the fences …you get the idea.  This gives at least a little additional use to the runs, though it doesn’t really address the issue of the chickens ruining the soil, but it will provide shade, some extra food for the chickens, food for humans and a better aesthetic than the current Alcatraz look.

bread, chickens, pigs, pasture 002

But wait!  There’s more…this morning I woke up with the idea in my head that I could really change this whole issue with the runs getting worn out by putting the flock out on the field in an eggmobile for part of the year.  This isn’t exactly a new idea – Salatin published about his eggmobile way back in the late ’90’s, and he’d been doing it for a while before that, plus George Henderson, an English farmer from the first half of the 20th century, who wrote The Farming Ladder, and Farmer’s Progress, used a kind of eggmobile system long before Salatin.  Chism Heritage Farm has a pretty skookum one.  I’ve been well aware of the concept for more than a decade, but never taken action on it because there is no likelihood of me getting a tractor ever, and most of them are built on old wagons or trailers, pretty much necessitating a towing device of some sort.

But I did get inklings of possibility a couple of years ago at the Salatin workshop I went to at Michael Ableman’s Foxglove Farm.  There, Salatin talked about the prototypes to the eggmobiles he uses now – he first started with a 6’x 8′ shelter on bicycle wheels, with pop holes on each side, so that he could configure the fence around the shelter about 6 different ways before he had to move it – by hand.  He kept something like 40 hens in that. Now I have 50 hens, and a couple of roosters, so that might be a little small for me.  But it did get me thinking, OK, maybe I could put the flock in two shelters and enclose both with portable electric netting.  A woman I met at lunch at the workshop and I were discussing eggmobiles and she told me she keeps a flock of 60 in three little mobile shelters that she moves around her field daily – she says they were like really big wheelbarrows, with handles at the back and wheels at the front, and she could move them alone.  So there was an option that might work for me.  The only problem really is my almost complete lack of carpentry skills.

I believe I could get past the construction challenges, probably by hiring that part of the project out.  This may seem like a cop out, but seriously, someone who knows what they’re doing will do the job faster and better than I could – left to me, the project will probably never get off the ground.  Moving the mobile coops and fencing every few days will definitely add to the chores, but I will be out in the field anyway with the broilers.  I think we’ll put the flock in two coops, with one big fence around both.  They can probably be on the field from May to the end of October.  Then they’d go back into their hen house with the 4 runs, which will probably be lovely and verdant after several months rest like that.

Now I’m starting to get into a win/win scenario – the chicken run area doubles as a fruit/nut orchard.  The layers spend half their year not only providing eggs but plenty of fertility and cultivation all around my fields for six months.  The fertility improves my pasture – in the short term, that’s important for hay, but longer term will be valuable for the sheep/cattle that will come sooner or later.

So now, I just need to make it happen, and then…how am I going to get the pig’s paddock to be multi-functional?


28 thoughts on “Multi-tasking

  1. […] something new never was an issue for me, quite an exciting challenge actually. I am reading this post this morning, and really like it. I am coming to realize how much of that general sustainability and […]

  2. valbjerke says:

    We run into the same issues here – and with both of us working off farm, keeping chickens and pigs and such in their own pens saves on work we don’t have time for. Still, as you say, the chickens strip the pen, and our pigs can finish of a plot that never seems to recover. Last year we started letting our pigs into the two pens the cow and calf prefer in the winter – they do an excellent job working the hay into the clay. This year we are going to let them have access to a fenced off portion of boggy bush to clean up the undergrowth and deadfalls.
    The chickens……I’m still thinking on it. The egg-mobile isn’t a practical idea for us. I prefer just to let them run loose – problem being of course – finding the eggs 🙂

    • It sounds like you’ve got the pigs doing some useful work for you, which is a good thing.

      The eggmobile won’t be practical for me if I can’t move it – and as you saw, it’s not reality yet. I’m very fortunate that I work 5 min from home, making a lot of things possible that I couldn’t have done when I worked further away.

      Loose – last year, the remains of my old flock were free range – against my will. 30 of them, ranging all over creation, including my neighbour’s flower garden (and she sells flowers on her stand – not happy). By the time I had most of the flock in the freezer, and was down to about 10 birds free ranging, leaving them to free range was more reasonable. If I didn’t use eggs as a significant income stream, and thus need more than a dozen hens, I’d probably do just that – leave them to roam around. But more than about 20 doing that are just destructive round here..

  3. Carrie says:

    I have a similar problem but on a much smaller scale (UK allotment of about 250 square metres, or 10 poles if you want it in ‘old money’).

    I toy with Lady Balfour’s system (of which yours is a version) and like you, I find Lady B’s idea works… somewhat! I am toying with incorporating a small version of Eliot Colman’s Chickshaw design/idea into plans this year. [See: then scroll down to Frequently Requested Information for the actual plan(.pdf)]

    An idea made popular years ago in the UK by Geoff Hamilton (Barnsdale Gardens/BBC TV gardening presenter) is the mini hoop-house (also a Colman favourite). (I make these as bed covers using rebar, underground water pipe, and bird netting.) Again, as per ‘quick hoops’ in the US, the concept is easily adapted to moveable temporary shelters for hens.

    Because of my lack of space – plus I grow winter crops too, thus no totally fallow veg beds to rotate hens onto – my most successful strategy to date has been to borrow the idea of ‘shredder-composter’ chickens as promoted by Harvey Ussery. (Arguably a further adaptation of Lady B’s idea.) [See: In my opinion his book is worth reading too – plenty of sound management techniques to use or adapt]

    I find the ‘composter chick’ approach keeps the ground from becoming too sour. I move the compost piles around the run so there is fresh ‘green’ stuff to explore and decaying (wormy) stuff in different patches. It takes a bit of effort in that I mostly bury fresh kitchen waste in the run (I’m not a big fan of rats) but once underground decay starts the hens soon work out where nice edibles are to be found and these patches become a hive of ‘composting’ activity.

    Fresh green garden waste and all manner of weeds just get chucked over the electric fence into piles. Again, as these piles start to break down the chicks are in there for a second ‘feeding’ and trampling. Every now and again I barrow out ‘chicken earth’ into my compost beds; the downside is that this is a ‘weedy’ process, but then again in due course those get hoed off the veg beds and re-enter the ‘composter-chick’ process.

    This year I want to divide the run in two (back to Balfour rotation) because I think this will improve the amount of ‘chicken earth’ I can take off. Also I hope the rest will also allow some seeds to sprout (esp the feed grain which I tend to scatter in amongst the ‘green’ piles) so that there’s a carpet of green shoots when the hens move back to that side of the run. I estimate moving them back and forth every six weeks or so in spring, summer and autumn and I’m toying with the idea of ‘one run’ over winter (say November to February – depending on temperature and rainfall).

    Well that’s the plan… Time will tell!

    • Yes, I did base my chicken set up on the Balfour system – courtesy of John Seymour’s explanation in one of his self sufficiency books (I think it was actually the gardening one). I’ve since run across it through other authors as well.

      Geoff Hamilton! Haven’t heard that name in a while – tucked in among my gardening books is “Ornamental Kitchen Garden” as per the TV show back in the ’80’s – it was my Dad’s book – he and I both loved that show. I still totally think he was onto a good thing, but I’ve never acted on it in a big way. We lived for 2 years in a small townhouse before moving here, though and I did have a go at this concept in the bed below the living room window. I had no idea he’d done anything with chickens – he certainly didn’t in that series. I shall now have to Google :). Your mention of the mini-hoops for chickens makes me think of the traditional English chicken “ark”, of which there about a million different versions on the internet, probably the most common being the A frame type – we had one when I was a child, and I remember it being heavy and cumbersome and requiring two people to move, but of course, I was about 10 at the time…I think your design with the hoops and the PVC pipe and rebar is probably way more manageable.

      The Eliot Coleman “Chickshaw” design is pretty awesome. If you search around, there are photos around. That’s about the size I’d be talking for my field eggmobiles, though I’m not up for all that metal work. I hadn’t thought of his design when I was posting the other day, but now that you’ve put it in mind, I might see if Hay Guy would be up for building those – he enjoys metal work, and made my dolly that I use for the Salatin pens.

      So how many hens do you have on your allotment? I don’t think they’re allowed on the allotments here, though that might vary according to jurisdiction.

      • Carrie says:

        I’m being confusing by conflating ideas… again! I first saw Geoff Hamilton use the ‘underground water pipe’ hooped bed cover in one of the TV shows (creating an allotment garden maybe?). Since obtaining an allotment I’ve used this idea to make semi-permanent bed covers. Having read Coleman, and looked at his ideas re rickshaw, duckingham palace, and so on, it struck me that my hooped bed covers were capable of adaptation as runs/homes for hens. Today there are hens in Barnsdale’s Kitchen Garden, but I don’t recall Geoff featuring them in the TV programmes.
        I had a flock of five Black Rocks for five years (hardy, well-feathered and great foragers); the remains of the flock were culled last back-end and I am about to start again with more BRs, but probably only four this time.
        I’ll second the comment of La Femme Farmer re Geoff Lawton; if you register for free access be sure to watch two mini videos: Feed Chickens without Grain and Tractor on Steroids – brilliant.
        With regard to her comment about ranging space I agree that suggestions cover a wide range of ‘so-called standards’. The best I could do was 4 sq metres per bird (the low end of our organic standards); actually this takes up nearly half of my allotment – hence the need to have productive hens that work for a living! 🙂
        Interesting exchange of ideas and information as always.

      • I’ll second that on the sharing of ideas – and thanks to you Carrie for the chickshaw reference. I can’t believe that as big of a Coleman fan as I am that I somehow missed this – it is brilliant! I’ve been talking to my husband about building a chicken taxi so I could easily move my layers on an as needed basis to other areas of the farm too far from their coop. I too highly recommend Harvey Ussery’s book and website – he is a great reference for fowl keepers.
        and thanks for your input on space for chickens – keep in mind I have 24 acres to work with, so I have room to be generous. Yours is all the more impressive that you are successful with your small space/flock.

      • Harvey Ussery’s book is just about the best poultry book out there for small producers, in my opinion, and I’ve seen quite a few.

        I think it was because of previous urging from you that I signed up for Geoff Lawton’s videos a little while ago. I’ve seen the chicken tractor ones – they are amazing. It looks a little unwieldy to me – how many people did it take to move it? 8? but the compost that came out of it! Wow.

        Seeing your reminder about your own plans for your chicken set up on your developing farm, I realize they were probably the seeds that germinated in the somewhat rocky soil that is my mind that had me come up with all my ideas for planting my chicken runs. Because now that you mention it – I remember really clearly how impressed I was with your plans – it made me go check other permaculture chicken design ideas. So thank you!

      • I’m loving this particular exchange!

        @Carrie (WordPress chose to put my reply at the bottom for some random reason, it was meant to be attached to your comment).
        Space requirements. Kind of like when you make the same soup over and over, you stop using the recipe, I have to say I really don’t refer to any official space requirements anymore. After more than a decade with a layer flock, I just have a pretty good feel for what works for them and what doesn’t.

        4 sq ft per bird is what we used as a guideline when first set this hen house up. We got this from the chicken book we started out with (Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow), and it is the space requirement for a mature heavy breed hen in an open house. The fact is, our birds are only shut into this house at night. All day they are free to go from house to lobby to run and back again, and they do. We have experimented with the size of the flock and found that 60 is the edge of too many birds for our set up, and 50 is about perfect. We usually aim for 55, expecting some attrition over the two year average that the flock is with us. This includes the roosters. Right now I have 46 hens and 3 roosters.

        People using the egg mobiles put many more birds than 4 sq ft/bird would allow – for the same reason I keep more than 30 in my house – they’re only confined to it at night, when they’re roosting anyway. Salatin’s are roughly hay wagon sized and he keeps something like 800 in a train of two of them hooked together. Because he moves the pair of houses every few days, the birds never get time to get bored with their forage and start picking on each other, as they would in a static situation.

        Most people around me here have a similar sized house to me and keep 100 birds in it, with access to a run or yard during the day (100 is the max flock allowed without buying a quota). Some of them have happier flocks than others – those who throw in a lot of scraps, straw, etc to keep the hens occupied, or who can let their hens into different areas of the garden seem to have more contented birds than those who are using minimal management. For me, 50 birds is about right in terms of the amount of time I have available to manage the birds.

  4. Ah, yes – theory vs. reality. We too are working with lots of theories, trying to plan out an entire farm operation on theory alone. I do have my small flock at home to provide me with some reality with regard to the poultry side of the future farm business, but a dozen backyard chickens is a far cry from a working\income-generating operation. I’ve said it before – blogs like yours, Throwback at Trapper Creek, Practicing Resurrection, etc, are invaluable to us – sharing your very real experiences provides us with plenty of “aha” moments.
    I’ve been trying to come up with a workable square footage per bird as I map out our future layer flock paddocks. My research so far has shown the numbers are all over the place, but I’m currently thinking about 300-400 sq ft per bird with at least four paddocks (but trying to work a fifth one in). We have planted the black locusts (that will also serve as future permanent fence posts), and will be planting out the grapes, mulberries, comfrey, salmonberry, huckleberry, currants, etc this spring, with plans to also regularly sow annual forages with each rotation to fill in where the birds have scratched. We also plan to have layers in egg mobiles fashioned after Geoff Lawton’s ideas on using the birds to prepare land for garden beds and food forests (see and – worth signing up for his full free videos and he doesn’t spam you)
    Again, all theories – the hard part is figuring out how fast plants will regenerate in your own climate, the right plants, the square footage per bird, etc…. We will start out with a smaller flock and add to it over time, closely monitoring their impact on the permanent paddocks.
    Reading about your actual experiences in rotating the chickens gives me more food for thought… literally! I really appreciate you sharing your detailed thought process on this. I’d be interested to know your thoughts\experience on square footage per bird in your rotation system.

  5. Carrie says:

    I forgot to mention that if you like Geoff’s Ornamental Kitchen Garden you will also appreciate Joy Larkcom’s Creative Vegetable Gardening. If you haven’t read it, there’s a new edition in paperback format (2014); however the hardback edition I borrowed is full of the most beautiful plates which I doubt will reproduce so well in the new format. If the h-back is already in your library system I’d suggest you add it to your winter ‘browsing’ list.

    • I have put a hold on the Joy Larkcom book, it looks great ! Thanks for the tip.

    • @Carrie, @ La Femme Farmer – if you want options to the chickshaws and eggmobiles, you might find something here:

      • Thanks for the link!
        The square footage I was referring to was for the paddocks rather than the coop so the birds don’t decimate the forages before they are moved to the next paddock. The time frame I think is roughly 28 days per paddock, but I’ve been reading someone’s blog (can’t recall which one but remember it was a PNW’er) and he had been using 250 sq Ft per bird and was thinking he should double it. That’s how I settled on 400 sq Ft per bird. That would be quite a palace if it were for the coop!
        Glad to have been an inspiration to you on the plantings – I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to return the favor.

      • Aha…when I read back through your comment earlier, I see that I just glossed over that small but important detail :). I have never seen anything that talked about square footage for outside for chickens…if you have links, pass them on! Now I’ll have to go Google, you’ve got me all curious.

  6. I found the blog that discusses the paddock sizing
    I remember poking around in as well. At some point when I get it all figured out, I’ll do a post.

    • Ah yes, Walden Effect…they have a LOT of info buried all over the place in their site. I used to spend a lot of time, there, haven’t visited in a while. Thanks for the reminder, and the link.

  7. I do so wish I had something awfully articulate to add to this discussion, but sadly my 17 chickens (dropping by 3 this weekend all going to plan) and 3 ducks doesn’t give me much chick-cred 🙂

  8. Carrie says:

    I too was considering run space (4 sq mtrs per bird) rather than coop space.

    Because I am short of space full stop, I’m about to use a gauge of 250mm of perch length per bird. The accepted spacing here (UK) is 200mm per bird. Been there, done that; and I observed that on warm nights heavy, well-feathered birds need a little more roost space in which to droop their wings so as to cool. (And I’m assuming… in winter they will just huddle closer together.)

    As I have a very small coop – 1metre wide internally – and don’t need more expense, I’m planning to restock with four birds to gain the extra perch space. I’m not keen on heavy birds resting overnight on their keels, which is what has tended to happen on warm nights in the past. I found ground roosting then became a habit with ‘she at the bottom of the pecking order’ – hassled off the roost in warm weather and then bullied to ‘no return’.

    To avoid spending winter evenings lifting back onto the perch whoever may be the new ‘Ms Pits in the Pecking Order’ I’m trying Plan B! Although it’s a moot point about how warm a chicken shack needs to be, I have a strong feeling that lengthy (winter-time) ‘keel resting’ contributes to poorer overall condition.

    Thanks for the other links – I’ll explore later.

    • Interesting point about the keel resting that I’ve not considered before, though my birds usually all roost. That said, the current,newish bunch have a few that are on the floor – maybe I’ll work harder at getting them up on the roosts.

  9. farmerkhaiti says:

    oh the mention of BC blackberries nearly brought me to tears!
    ….other than kind of rehabilitating pastures, I’m trying to think if a (permanent) pig paddock could withstand much multi-tasking, since pigs are so powerful and destructive. Although I just thought about grape trellises above them, if they couldn’t access the vine where it came out of the ground? Hmmm, now you have me thinking. I read Shepard rings his hogs’ noses so he can keep them out in his tree plantings to self harvest chestnuts and such, but prevent them from rooting it all up, but I don’t really like the idea of non-digging pigs too much. It’s so joyful for them to do! I’m pretty psyched to start pasturing ours in the back gully to begin rehabbing it- it was over grazed 20 years ago, now is coming back in maple and pine trees with a bit of invasive prickly ash, but big oaks dotted around the perimeter. We’ll be either letting the 22 have the whole 10-12 acres this first year, or using smaller electric paddocks to focus their efforts more. Not sure which he’ll do, ( this is supposed to be more the husband’s job on the farm.)

    • Yes I agree about the pigs and the challenge of planting anything where their noses can reach. I’m thinking trees on their fenceline will be about the extent of it. Yes, I was a bit surprised to learn that Shepard uses rings on his pigs – but you’re right he does, he mentions it in the bool Not something I’ll ever do,

  10. Hey FarmerKhati et al.
    RE: pigs. When I took my keyline course the fellow hosting the class actually had his pigs paddocked in an old blueberry field. I was shocked and expected them to tear the place to shreds. Surprisingly they did eat off all the lower hanging bits and berries but at a level that would be unpleasant to stoop and pick from. The pork was slightly berry flavored.

    I think you are on the right track with using an area you are rehabbing. The farmers I have talked to all say to auger a hole into the root zone of old stumps and drop some corn into it. The pigs will do the work and dig out the stump. Overhanging the edges with hazelnuts, kiwi, paw paw, and whatever other goodies for pannage is what we intend to do too. You can do the pig’s work or let the pigs do the work. Given that pigs are forest animals I am looking forward to using them as we start to rejuvenate and diversify our forest.

    The same goes for chickens. L has had some success putting rocks around our hops plants to keep them from digging them up. bits of slate or other heavy bits do double duty too, they will condensate underneath and give you a modicum of watering even in the dry months.

  11. […] is hard for me to move the poultrynet around while still giving them access to their coop. Through Sailors Small Farm, I heard about Eliot Coleman’s Chickshaw – which is exactly what I envisioned my […]

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