Free range = sustainable, right?
Free range and sustainable are very popular terms right now. At least when you are talking about poultry, or other small farm animals. The movie Chicken Run comes to mind. Hens doing what they want, with no need of the husbandman to make sure they are fed, watered and kept safe. However, the term used with cattle brings the ire of many who believe cattle and other grazing animals should NOT be free ranging. None of my animals free range. For me to be able to own them, they have to be able to be economically viable, or at least earn their keep. Which means I have to manage them. Animal husbandry is not just science or art, it is a blend of both. Each animal has different needs, and depending what we are farming them for – milk, meat or eggs – different requirements for housing, and ease of gathering the products.
It’s easy for someone to say the chickens should be allowed to do what they want, especially when they don’t have chickens. We all draw a line somewhere that denotes our comfort zone. For some it is keeping laying hens in a moveable house, others it is a fixed house with free range during the day, and for some it is not keeping chickens at all and translocating their comfort zone onto someone else. What do I mean translocate? That term is used a lot in Management-intensive Grazing circles. In grazing the term is used to describe what happens when the livestock gets to camp out under the same shade trees, the woods, or in a barnyard instead of where the animal grazes. When the livestock is moved daily to a well rested, fresh pasture, the manure is placed directly where it is needed most – on the grass that needs replenishment. Now while we’re talking manure here, I’ll just not so politely interject that I think that it is a bunch of crap for someone to expect me to free range my chickens, when they don’t own chickens, period. I would be failing my husbandwoman duties if I was to let my chickens free-range. Sure, they would have more freedom and a greater variety of food. But, they also for sure would fall prey to predation (not a pretty sight), get in my garden, most likely water themselves at the water trough (too messy), and I would be forever hunting for eggs that I would be hesitant to use. And back to the money issue, when you invest $$ and your time in a flock of hens only to have months of work destroyed in a matter of hours, how sustainable is that? Sure the neighbor dog, resident coyote or coon or the ever present Red-tailed hawk is happy and probably sending off a donation to PETA as we speak, but how do you recoup that loss, and get over the guilt of letting a predator in one fell swoop (pun intended) ruin your egg dreams? I will pick the guilt of not free-ranging over the guilt of cleaning up after a coon has ripped the heads off of my beautiful hens any day. But it is a choice, based on my reality, not someone else’s. Some of you may be able to pull it off, but if you can’t, this is what works for us. See what you think.
We didn’t use to keep chickens at all, I bartered raw milk for eggs, and let my neighbor have all the worries of chicken keeping, translocating my comfort level to her. So when we decided to start raising poultry to sell, we didn’t have to deal with “Grandpa’s chicken house” and all that entails. We could design our chicken business around what fit for us, and make the dwellings multi-purpose.
We opted for pastured poultry using Polyface’s methods. We wanted the hens outside during the grazing season, and we wanted fertilizer on the pastures at that time. In exchange for the shelter, food, water, nest boxes, and electric netting for predator protection that was provided by us – the hens provided us with eggs to sell, and lots of great fertilizer.
After a number of years we decided that raising poultry on a commercial scale was not something we felt comfortable with. I wrote a post about that here. So now what? When you’re used to having eggs everywhere, you get used to having as many fresh eggs as you want. We realized quickly that moving one to two dozen hens around every three days would not be realistic, nor did we want them in a feathernet for a long period of time. Once you quit moving your stock, the predators become less unsettled and they settle in for the long haul, and the heavy manure buildup from chickens is hard on the soil. Keeping the chickens safe was high on the priority list, and next was ease of care. Chores become chores when they are repeated too often. Feeding the chickens everyday is a waste of time, when you can do it weekly. The same goes for watering.
We had built greenhouse style buildings for our brooding chicks and for winter housing when we were raising so much poultry. Using greenhouses we reasoned, would satisfy the things on our wish list for a chicken brooding area, or for winter housing of poultry:
♥ Economical and easy to build, requiring no permits.
♥ Easy to adapt to many uses, or dismantle and move somewhere else.
♥ Easy to clean.
♥ Lots of natural light/heat requiring less electricity.
♥ Could be fairly predator proof, or at least slow them down.
We decided to experiment with keeping the hens housed year-round in one of these greenhouses. What an empowering idea for us. Since only we would be eating the eggs, we had no expectations that these chickens would be free-ranging. For us, it meant we didn’t have the worry of the chickens being destroyed, or maimed by predators. No 3 am chicken squawking, shotgun, flannel nightgown and rubber boot forays into the darkness. Trust me, trying to remember where exactly all the electric fence is in the dark, is no fun, especially when you find out the hard way ;) Note to self – be the designated flashlight carrier and run BEHIND Hangdog when he is carrying the shotgun and is in the avenging mode😉
This is one of our 20′ x 20′ quonset style greenhouses. The hens have a 15′ x 20′ area to themselves, and we, the personnel, have a 5′ x 20′ foyer area to store feed and bedding and whatever chicken paraphernalia needs storing. The powers that be say a laying hen must have at least 5′ square feet minimum for comfortable housing at maturity. These hens were brooded here with our Cornish X. The Cornish were moved out at 4 weeks of age, and the pullets have had the run of the entire brooder since June. I started out with 25, 1 died in chickancy, and I sold 14, leaving me with 11 hens. They started laying at 18 weeks and now are giving me from 8 – 11 eggs a day. If they were uncomfortable here, they would be showing signs of stress, like: feather picking, fighting, maybe cannibalism, egg eating, and low egg production. So far, we have seen nothing like that in the 3 years we have been using this method.
The bell waterer and feeder are both hanging and can be adjusted for height as the chickens grow. Hanging these two items makes for clean utensils for them, and a clean working arrangement for us too. I swish the waterer out weekly, but all it has accumulated is some dust from hen dust bathing activities. Because it hangs and is positioned away from the feeder, there are not any feces to deal with. We have found with anything livestock related it is easier to keep it clean, than it is to clean it. These types of practices also make it safer for children to help with the chores. Our daughter raised all our chicks for us and we paid her for live ones at the end of the brooding phase. She was quite young at the time, and if the chicken area had been gross at all, she would have bailed I’m sure.
The feeder holds 50 lbs of feed and can be filled as needed. The waterer is gravity-fed from a 5 gallon bucket outside the greenhouse, reducing the need to go in with the chickens with a hose. Food safety is important, the water hose for the chickens is attached to our water supply, and back flow issues are serious on a farm. I about gag when I go to someone’s farm and see a hose snaking through a manure filled barnyard or chicken pen and hooked up to a float. It’s convenient sure, but there is more than one way to skin a cat.
We knew we wouldn’t be pasturing these hens, so that meant an additional chore of bringing greens to them each day. The hens get our house compost, which consists of coffee grounds, peelings, anything the dogs don’t eat, and egg shells about every other day. Also they get anything from the garden that needs pulling, or culling. About once a week they get a wheelbarrow of stable cleanings. There are enzymes in manure that help the chickens digest their food, plus they find “yummy” stuff in there too.
We are into our cloudy, dark season now until spring, so the summer shade cloth is off, and they don’t even mind the light on their nest area. Come spring, the shade cloth will go back on, and a barrier will be put between the nest box and wall to offer some darkness in the nests.
Just a word about supplies purchased here. When we sold eggs, we needed equipment that held up, and was easy to clean. We ordered these items mail order, and have owned, used and abused them for 12 years. None of these cost anymore than the feed store counterparts and still have a lot of life left in them. The feeder is a Kuhl range feeder w/o rain shield, the nest box is a “Kuhl 10-hole with closable perches and removable plastic nest bottoms, and the waterer is a Plasson bell waterer.
The removable bottoms are great for keeping the nest boxes clean, and are actually quite durable. Homemade is great and saves money, but if you have ever had to scoop out some of the stuff that accumulates in nests, you know what I am talking about, broken eggs, chicken crap, add a little heat on a hot summer day, and it’s enough to make you urp right there. This type of nest box would be indispensable too, if you get some kind of pest infestation on your chickens. Pests can hide in every nook and cranny. I can pick up that nest box and carry it outside on my hip, remove the bedding, take out the bottoms and give the entire shebang a deep cleaning. That is impossible to do with a fixed wooden nest box scenario. But, a free ranging chicken lives forever, never craps in the nest or breaks an egg and probably is pest free too, so maybe this last paragraph was a sale’s pitch for free-ranging chickens, I don’t know… .
Chickens go in the nests and …
Set a spell…
I see custard in my future :) Thanks girls!!