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.
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.
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?