The original grant aimed to incorporate movable coops and housing for laying hens (no rooster competition on my farm) into a vegetable farm system, to reduce weeds, tillage and increase income and fertility. The focus is on laying hens, (and not meat birds that have to be replaced every 6 to 8 weeks) which can be used for up to 3 years. Movable chicken coups (hennabago’s) are surrounded by a run of approximately 3000 square feet. The whole system is moved approximately every 3 weeks and functions as the fertilizer motor for the farm (18 acres tillable).
Two hay wagons were bought and converted into houses for 100 chickens each, 98 square feet per wagon. This is ample room for them as they are only in the wagons to sleep and lay. The 200 chickens divide themselves fairly evenly over the wagons. At morning counts there were always between 80 and 120 hens in the wagons. The wagons are light enough that they can be moved with a four wheeler. There are 24 nesting boxes per wagon, which works out to about 1 box per 5 hens, and this is adequate. The hens roost in the rafters and need, some in the laying boxes and a foot roost per hen was found to be sufficient. Building details: see photos. Be sure to make the roof at least 6 feet off the ground, or bump your head at your own risk. The laying boxes can be easily accessed from the outside. Total cost of construction per wagon was approximately $1000.
The wagons have just chicken wire around them and in the winter plastic sheeting was added to the North and West side to break the wind.
There is an electric fence, purchased on line, that surrounds the “free range” area. Two types were bought and the verdict is that the shorter one, 82 ft with double stakes is very much preferred to the 164 ft length with the single stake. As the enclosed area is approximately 100 by 30 ft, 4 sets of 82 ft netting are used, with the remainder doubled up along the fence.
For flexibility a solar charger was purchased from MFA. It worked well enough to give the predators an initial jolt, including the dogs, but the charger is not powerful enough to charge the netting in wet soil conditions or if any kind of grass is touching the net. In retrospect a regular low impedance electric charger and a couple hundred feet of either extension cord or electric wire would have been much less expensive, more rigid and given a more charged net. That said, in the two years only 3 hens were lost to predators, without closing the wagons at night (!).
Mail order brides Buff Orphingtons came in the mail, one day old. The first 6 weeks the chicks are too small to be held by the netting and they will have to be kept in a different set up, or get a hotter charge and they may respect the fence (see above). Wings were clipped on one side when put in the runs. Generally the hens do stay inside the fence.
300 ft long black hose has enough radius, combined with a few hydrants, to make watering easy. The best watering troughs are the solid rubber ones; they are not very big but they will not freeze to pieces and the birds need clean water every day anyway.
* Moving the set-up:
Lock the hens up at night, pull the net, move all feeders, waterers and charger to the next section to be treated. Hook up the wagons in the morning, put down the rubber (see below), park the wagons on the tarp, get whatever was used to pull out of the run, put up the netting, open the wagon and do a count to see if any birds were lost. If the wagons are moved next to the previous location a move can be done in less than one hour with two people; if there is distance involved it takes a little longer.
Egg production of 10 dozen/day/ year (including 2 month molting period) pays for feed, labor for packing and washing and cartons at $2.50 a dozen makes it a break-even or better proposition (not including other benefits, see below.)
* Reduced tillage:
200 chickens weigh about 800 lbs, the equivalent of a small cow. It is impressive how quickly the hens can reduce a field of weed stubble to bare soil in the winter. After the hens are moved, one pass with a tractor-mounted tiller makes a seed bed that is ready to plant: brush hogging and disking passes can be skipped.
In summer the amount of soil that can be cleared is smaller, or it takes longer for the hens to clear the 3000 sq ft, as the vegetation actively grows. For operation at Wilfarm the 30 by 100 area works very well so the length of stay is increased until vegetation has been eliminated.
The contribution of new vegetation is noticeable for the first two days after the hens are moved, but doesn’t amount to much. Instead of the daily 50 lbs of MFA laying mash for 200 hens they get 25 lbs and the third day they really display their displeasure. Quantification of actively growing plants to the diet has been too challenging, besides, that was not the focus of grant.
* Soil fertilization and fertility issues:
Any self sustaining farm needs some form of livestock: here chickens are the fertility motor of the farm. NPK from a bag is still being used but is being replaced with conventional chicken feed that goes through the hens to make a contribution to fertility.
* Weeds reduction:
Although the hens do eat fox tail seed and they do destroy the seed in their passage through, tillage does constantly bring up new fox tail seeds and no reduction has been seen. Under the wagons the vegetation has shifted and dock has become more concentrated. Weed reduction may be something for a longer term use.
Applications for use pursued:
* On raised beds:
The run is 30 by 100 ft long, can be modified, but the raised beds used are 200 ft long. It takes planning to use the runs on the beds as all the crops in a 30 ft wide path have to be finished [producing]. Also, the netting is unforgiving when placed over the raised beds in the sense that there will be gaps where the chickens can walk underneath the netting in the trenches. Eventually a level path was made perpendicular to the raised beds at the 100 ft, halfway mark.
*In the high tunnel:
The hens were let in the tunnel to clean it up. However the wagons do not fit within the tunnel and were placed outside, although vegetation was removed, manure stayed out. It is too hot in the tunnel in the summer time; fall may be a good time. Tarps under the wagons and respreading the manure does make this option doable.
*Weeding with hens:
Not a good idea; they will eat cucumber plants and pepper plants. They will leave tomato plants alone for a little while as long as there is other vegetation and there is no fruit on the vines, but there is no patch of 100 ft by 30 ft and putting up a fence for 2 rows of tomatoes and moving the wagons is not practical.
Manure distribution issue
Chicken manure fertility contributions were estimated based on a daily feeding of 50 lb bag of laying mash. Feed value from greens and bugs were neglected and came to 125 lb of N per acre and the same or more for P and K, assuming that the manure is spread evenly. However in season two it became apparent that manure distribution is not even, not even close! The locations where the wagons had been were easy to distinguish in the subsequent crops of oats and wheat: dark green vegetation spots of 20 by 20 ft. This makes sense taking the hens’ daily routine into consideration; the hens do congregate under the wagons in rain and sun and spend a lot of time in the vicinity of the coops, besides nightly droppings fall through the floor. To quantify this effect, soil measurements were taken directly under the wagon, right after it was moved, and then 10 ft, 20 ft, 30 ft, and 50 ft out and compared to a baseline from the same field, but not the exact same location.
Nutrient analysis (all in lb/acre)
Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium, Magnesium, Calcium
Baseline: 12, 23, 57, 343, 3364
At the wagon (0 ft.): 337, 137, 837, 659, 4979
10 ft out: 54, 66, 202, 480, 3557
20 ft out: 46, 33, 163, 621, 4389
30 ft out: 24, 16, 133, 611, 4473
50 ft out: 20, 17, 134, 544, 3804
Thus, nutrients do increase from the hen manure, but the distribution is off. As this was evident early on, it was attempted to increase uniformity of manure distribution by keeping feeders and water troughs as far away as possible from the wagons; still this is not sufficient as can be seen from the soil tests. Another solution is to move the wagons daily, which could be done with a pully and post system, but the whole idea is exactly not to have to work this system on a daily basis. The other option pursued was to place tarps down, 15 ft by 15 ft and place the wagons on there and collect and redistribute the manure after 3 weeks. This works well, however it takes a much better tarp than the regular blue throw (Throw away) tarps. A large sheet of inner tube quality rubber was ordered, which works very well. The manure is than collected and redistributed over the area which can be done in less than one hour.
– 2 field days were held, in conjunction with SWCD farm tours
– the river Valley Rhine association had a stop at the farm
– a talk at the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference in Columbia MO, two presentations at the local Food Circle
– contacts with numerous individuals (due to high visibility of the wagons from Hwy 19)
– a newspaper article in the local courier
– a write up article in Countynewslive.com which is read by a 1000 people a week
– approximately 25 local producers have stopped by and looked at the system
– part of the website at wilfarm.org has a description of the Hoeing Hens and did have 100 hits a week
This system can be modified, copied and scaled up easily to fit a different producer’s farm system. It has definite merit and I will continue using the system. Thank you SARE for helping my farm to become more sustainable.