We are all familiar with classic chicken coops, whether from personal experience or the movies. Big old rooster, nippy hens, and dark musty places. Not always the nicest little huts for a kid to venture into looking for eggs for breakfast.
Is this the best life for a chicken? It’s not a bad one. But let’s think about chickens, first, before we think about chicken housing.
Chickens are the only domesticated birds designed specifically to digest grain. That’s why they have a gizzard, and why they eat grit. The bits of rock and sand that hang out in a chicken’s gizzard serve as grinding stones. A chicken uses it’s crop muscles to essentially grind its own flour. Corn, beans, seeds, the indigestible whole grains we can’t get without processing are available for digestion by chickens. They need to eat grains!
But they also need a whole host of nutrients and proteins that don’t come from grains alone. The healthiest chickens are those that are supplementing their diets with lots of leafy green, seeds from weeds, and especially insects! What’s the best way to get a chicken the nutrients and minerals it needs? Let it run around outside!
We want our chickens to be able to follow behind our cows this summer. They’ll pick through poop, eat fly larvae, weed seeds, and forage for insects in the tall grasses.
What we don’t want is for our chickens to eat every speck of grass, turning their yard into a hard-packed clay chicken run with dead soil and no green growth. Which is why we’re adopting a method Joel Salatin has developed at his farm called The Chicken Tractor.
Unlike Joel, our tractor will not just be for egg layers. We’re filling ours with broilers especially bred to be good foragers. So they’ll put on meat on grass.
One of the benefits of living in a diverse savanna ecosystem is the wealth of building resources available. We decided to make our chicken tractor in the style of a wigwam, using all whole hazelnut poles harvested from routine renewal pruning of the hazelnut shrubs on New Forest Farm.
First, we built a base frame from some bigger poles. Our wigwam is about 7’x12′. We braced the corners, then bent hazel “whips” (long skinny saplings about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter) inside the frame and secured them initially with deck screws.
The next step was to create our weave. We chose only the bendiest hazels and wove them between the secured poles. We lost several along the way due to brittle breaking, but even some that broke we left in for added integrity.
Next we went through and tied square-lashing knots around the joints, including where we’d screwed in the supporting poles. We used a nylon cord to tie the knots. The lashing makes the whole thing flexible, yet secure, so we won’t split our thin poles, but still be able to keep the whole operation super secure, and strong!
We covered the wigwam with lumber tarps we got free from the local lumberyard. We stapled chickenwire around the inside to protect from sneaky predators. We also added chestnut pole roosts to the interior for our chickens to perch on to sleep at night.
To protect from predators, we set up electric netting around the outside of the wigwam. The chickens are small enough to squeeze in and out between the holes in the netting, but coyotes and weasels can’t come in. The wigwam is also light enough to move by hand with two people. We can now put them wherever they are most needed! We plan on moving our wigwam about every three days.
Now that we have green grass and nice, warm days, our chickens are ready to go outside and start foraging!