Hoeing Hens Help
This grant focuses on incorporating movable coops for laying hens into a vegetable farm system, to reduce weeds, tillage and increase income and fertility.
In the first 8 months of this project I have very often had the feeling that I was the first one to invent the wheel. This project is really awesome! Sure it can use some refining, but there is nothing suggesting that there is something that could prevent it from working really well for other producers. It is simple, relatively inexpensive and can be upscaled easily. It works as can be easily demonstrated with photos of before and after. Although ambitions with regard to research were not realistic in the first year I now do have the solid foundation of a very well working system with full grown laying hens (and some preliminary results). I am excited to work on quantifying the effects regarding fertility, weed control and tillage reduction.
This movable system/hennabago set up
Two hay wagons were bought and converted into houses for 125 chickens each, with laying boxes on the side, accessible from the outside of the wagon. They are light enough that they can be moved with a four wheeler, 4wd truck, small tractor or two willing persons.
The initial grant assumed 8 by 16 feet dimensions on the frame, with 50 chickens per wagon. Well, it turns out that a haywagon floor is about 14-7 feet and with a roof over it is plenty big. So the size was scaled down. Initial stocking rate was thought to be 50 chickens per wagon, but since I started with 220 we tried that, and lo and behold, they fit comfortably. (The chickens have their pick of wagon, and at one location there were 75 in one and 145 in the other wagon. Lately they are more even at roughly 110 and 110 per wagon).
Design was a function of construction: building details: see photos. One nice feature is that you can very easily collect the eggs without ever having to go into the wagon. Total cost of construction per wagon was approximately $1000.
Got a good design for the coops: with a few additions needed at times. The coops are open, and in the winter you need a windbreak at least at one side to break the wind. Nothing a big sheet of plastic can’t fix. Also need winter windbreak around the bottom for blizzard conditions, couple of sheets of roofing tin fix that. A Plastic tarp on the ground under the wagons gives great manure collection and more even spread if you leave the wagon in place for extended periods of time.
Fence and charger.
Electric fencing was bought online, approximately 500 ft, and charged with a solar panel unit from MFA. A regular low impedance charger plugged into a 110 volt outlet will work too, but the solar charger gives more flexibility with regards to location (at one time I did run electric lights on a 400 foot extension cord to improve laying, but that too will be converted to the charger). Both wagons are placed within an electrically fenced area that can be moved as well. Depending on what I am grazing/ or clearing out I can configure the net to change stocking density from 5 sq. ft to 100 sq ft per chicken. I have cleaned 3000 sq ft per time, but for the winter I don't move as often and am doing 9000 sq ft at a time.
Initially the chicks were too small to be kept in by the net, but 3 months into it they stay in. (Also a reason this system will NOT work for meat birds, they stay too small too long; you really need full grown chickens all the time), Amazingly the fence is, so far, 100% effective against predators. I started with 220 chickens and 6 months later I counted and have 227. (At least 220 I would say) Experience with the netting: buy the shorter length netting with double stakes, it moves so much easier. Figure on an hour or 2 hours to move the whole set-up if you go to the other side of the farm, just next to previous site about an hour should do it.
Benefits so far:
It really is impressive how destructive 220 chickens can be. If you think about it: you have the equivalent of a 1100 pound cow roaming around in a small area. They reduce weed stalks to a fine mulch, they remove fescue and foxtail seed. I have used the chickens in the high tunnel, and it took about two weeks to remove all residue. I have used them on the asparagus in early spring. No need to remove asparagus debris and weeds. They clean it up, and fertilize it. I have tried them on a little part of my strawberry bed, but a week or so into that I had lost 50 plants. They will eat and destroy strawberry plants. But, and this is just a matter of learning: they will leave tomato plants in the tunnel alone. They will eat and peck the fruit, but on established plants they eat around them. Right now they are located on a little patch and they really don’t like garlic. (I didn’t know I had that much garlic).
I can see the difference like night and day where the chickens were and where they were not. One side I have to mow, maybe disk and then rototill. Where the chickens were I can just rototill.
I have not quantified the actual feed contribution of the weeds yet. Too challenging when you work with chicks that are still growing and weeds that are still growing.
It takes about 5 months before 1-day-old chicks get to the laying stage. Right now getting 12 to 14 dozen eggs a day. This pays for feed, the labor to feed, water and collect the eggs. It provides income to a person and brings people to my farm so I can sell other things: product diversification as it were.
Feeding and watering as far away from the coops is best to increase uniform manure distribution. I feed one fifty pound bag of laying mash a day: At 40 minute work/ day that pays for the help, cartons, and investment. Did sell all the eggs till a few weeks ago, looking for buyers right now. ( need any eggs?). The economics of it are just about break even, but I have not pursued optimal pricing and marketing. (St. Louis prices are approximately $3 a dozen, at the house $2.25 and at market $2.50).
If you give the chickens 3000 square feet and leave them for 10 days in one spot (trust me on the math), it comes to 125 lbs of N to the acre, and some more for P and K. I have baseline soil tests, just need to get the probe out to verify, as soon as the snow is gone.
The chickens will gather under the wagon in heat and in rain and that is where the most manure is deposited. To increase uniform manure distribution it makes sense to feed and water as far away from the coops as you can.
The foxtail seed bank is here. I hope the chickens can make a dent in it. I have a number of places I have put the hens on where the foxtail was waist high, and in a couple of weeks they stubbled it down. I am very interested to quantify the difference in foxtail population in this year. High hopes.
I will be part of two NRCS field tours and have an upcoming article in the local newspaper. I have been getting quite a few producers (10 or so) just stopping by out of curiosity regarding those moving houses (Where did your chickens go?). I have given a presentation at the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference in Columbia (Nov 2012) and two presentations at the local food circle. This year with the "U-WE pick" opening I think I will reach quite a few people . I have put the presentation that I put together on-line. It can be found under wilfarm.org.
This year's plans (2013).
It was a late start before the chickens became operational, i.e. big enough. So much of the research and quantification was put on hold.
• I will continue to explore different applications of the hoeing hens.
• I will do soil testing (I do have good baseline test results) on the locations where the hens were.
• I will quantify change in weed composition and quantity comparing the sites where the chickens have been to the control sites next to it.
• I think with the chickens being full grown it will now be possible to quantify how much the “grazing” contributes to the feeding since I know how much they have eaten throughout the winter when nutritional contribution from weeds was basically negligible.
This is really a very cool project. It does provide income/paid labor, product diversification, motoring the soil fertility, reduction in weed (numbers to follow this year). It is replicable, relatively inexpensive ($1000 per coop, and $300 on netting), and you can scale it up.
I am genuinely excited about past year's results and this year's progress. I am proud to show them helping hoeing hens. If you are in the neighborhood: please stop by. For photos, power point presentation, contact information and background, please visit wilfarm.org