As part of our ever evolving homestead “system”, we try to approach things in tune with nature’s cycles and that includes how we care for our pastures and create tilth. Tilth is essentially a healthy soil eco-system that enjoys the benefit of bio-diversity among the flora and the fauna that occupy it. Out here in the lower Cascade Mountains, farms are fairly uncommon sights as most of that tilth has been washed out of the mountains and down to the lowlands where agriculture is generally found. While that means the mountains are great for mining and gravel, and known for having really good drainage, it also means that soils are fairly depleted and run towards acidic. So in order to cultivate a mountain meadow with a variety of grasses and forbs, and keeping it from returning to an evergreen forest, we have to manage nature’s cycles. This includes having some grazers on hand who can forage and keep the grasses cut so that brush, like salmonberry and blackberry, don’t overtake it. The alpacas and llamas tend to do a great job at that. They also leave behind a highly nutritious soil supplement in the form of their manure. However, with a herd of grazers alone, we are still challenged with the results: poop piles attracts biting fly populations and other insects, the poop needs to be spread, and the herd is still selective in their eating habits (moss and old thatched grass gets passed by for more delectable items.)
Thus enters the chicken tractor. Like a tractor which harrows a field, spreads manure, tills soils, a chicken tractor performs the same functions, albeit on a different timescale than the gas powered wonders of the modern age. For this year’s run, which starts in May and ends between September and December, we are running twenty Rock Cornish Cross poultry meat birds and four turkeys (including a bronze). We’ll start harvesting the poultry in September and butcher 3-4 per week leaving the turkeys to finish out in time for Thanksgiving and later ground turkey meat for the freezer. While we are thankful for meat provided from free-ranging chickens, their primary purpose is really to help renovate the pastures.
Like most chicken endeavors, our chicken tractor is made from salvaged and recycled materials, some of which was leftover from the construction of our house. A few carport metal tubes serve as skids and the bottom frame, and PVC pipe creates the hoop structure. Fastened to the PVC are some leftover fence pieces and chicken wire. The two ends of the chicken tractor are leftover cedar plywood sheets with a door cut into one end. Covering about two-thirds of the entire structure is some white plastic tarp wrap that originally wrapped the wood delivered during the construction of the house. Partly covering the tractor means there is always a shady and sunny area and the portion towards the front of the tractor which is covered helps keep the food dry during any rain.
For the first few weeks of the chicken tractor, when the baby chicks are introduced, we add another tarp to fully cover the open portion of the tractor and prevent drafts while we brood the baby chicks. We also add a heat lamp to help them remain warm. The heat lamp limits the tractor to an area within 100’ of the barn where the electricity comes from, but that only lasts until the chicks are fully feathered out and can keep themselves warm. They also are offered free-choice chick starter feed which they can have as much as they can manage to eat. Once the heat lamp is removed and brooding is complete, however, we’ll begin to wean them from the commercially manufactured feed and let them forage freely in the pasture for bugs, grasses, and clovers. We’ll only use a small portion of commercial feed at the end of the day when it’s time for them to go back into the chicken tractor for the night. This approach saves quite a bit on the feed bill and allows for some of the best tasting chicken meat that is free-range and grass-fed with minimal additional feed.
If you try this approach for your own chicken tractor it’s important to have a well-fenced in pasture space for the birds to roam which offers enough for them to eat without over-grazing the grass down to dirt. It’s time to move the flock to a new pasture when you notice the grass getting too short from the chickens eating it. As part of our strategy, we first let the herd of llamas and alpacas graze, followed by the slower moving chicken tractor to “clean up” after them. The chicken tractor can stay in one of our small pasture areas for 3-8 weeks depending upon how much I choose to allow them to impact the area.
Since I do let the birds out of the tractor during the day, I wait until I move them to another pasture to perform the remaining human-based cultivation tasks. That generally includes spreading out some more straw and raking any remaining llama poop out and adding grass and clover seed. The pasture is then set for the season. A heavily renovated pasture may have the llamas and alpacas mob-grazing it for week or two and the chicken tractor working it over for another 6 weeks. After that, I’m guaranteed a lusher, more sustainable pasture for next season. If a pasture only needs a light renovation, because most of the grasses and clovers are established, I may leave the chicken tractor in pasture for a shorter duration and then return the herd back to it later in the season for another grazing. I can also choose to limit the birds foraging for a day by keeping them within the tractor over a portion of a ground, say with lots of moss, until they’ve really dug it all up and then move them to another spot. If I do this the chicken tractor is moving on a daily basis to assure they have enough to forage, or I’m supplementing with a little more feed until they are done with that spot. Generally, when I’m brooding the baby chicks, the chicken tractor gets located on the mossiest spots I can find since it moves less often than when the birds are more fully grown.
By the end of the chicken run season, all the poultry birds have been harvested and dispatched to the freezer. Our birds are allowed to grow longer than the typical “young chicken” label you see in most store bought chickens. As a result, we end up with chickens that can produce breasts which weigh 6-8 pounds; very large chicken breasts. The only occupants left to finish out the run will be the turkeys. So as September winds down and October sees the grasses slowing their growth, the chicken tractor is moved to the front paddocks of the barn where some deep straw bedding is added and the turkeys are given finishing feed, and garden scraps for the reminder of their time. After the last bird is harvested for meat, come Spring the deep bedding, with rich turkey manure, will be raked out into the paddock where it will be planted with corn and beans or wheat, grasses, and clovers. When the herd is pulled off pasture for the season, it’s these garden paddocks that they get for their final foraging before strictly feeding on their winter hay bales. Once these paddocks go fallow again, they are ready for another garden season the next year allowing the ground to recover.
Be sure to check out the video of the chicken tractor brooding this year’s baby chicks:
2012 Run Notes: We’ve made some minor adjustments in how we run our chicken tractor towards the end of the season. Using a deep bedding option, with more closed-up time for the turkeys, created more work than was necessary. Instead, we now finish out the turkeys by continuing them in rotation within a pasture spot. At night they are closed up, and during the day let out to roam the pasture. No more deep bedding of straw and poop to muck out; which was a messy, smelly chore. Also, since the tractor continues it’s rotation, the turkeys still get to graze a bit and their poop is spread. No additional straw for bedding is given either. Sometimes, simple really is better, and learning how to keep an editing eye towards our processes and procedures allows for continuous improvement and optimization.
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