We’d all like our free range chickens to truly be as free as birds, but for reasons of space or predators this isn’t always practical.
You can, however, still get many of the benefits of allowing them to roam at will by building a chicken tractor or mobile chicken cage. Most importantly, this allows the chickens to forage and graze naturally, and when one part of their pasture is looking a little weary, their home can simply be moved a few feet.
Building Your Chicken Tractor
There are numerous ideas out there as to the actual construction, but the basic idea is to build a box by constructing a wooden frame and cover it with mesh. As the structure needs to be both sturdy and lightweight, miter joints are recommended for the main braces. Sawing these by hand with a jig is tricky to get right, so choose DeWalt or Makita and you’ll soon find that a decent rotary saw makes life much easier.
Nesting boxes, roosts, a roof, feed trays and wheels can all be added at will. As long as you allow at least 1m3 (3 sq. ft) of space per chicken, they’ll be perfectly happy, be able to take dust baths and fertilize the soil as they move around.
The Rubber Mat Method
If your chickens are enclosed for a while, say in winter when they’re less active, you’ll probably notice a certain pungency in the air and some squishiness underfoot. Dealing with manure, of which each chicken produces about 5 kg (10 lbs) per month, is part and parcel of keeping chickens.
One way to do so is to get a shovel and apply it for fertilizer, but another option is to use it as bug food. This technique really couldn’t be simpler: simply wet a patch of floor in your chicken house thoroughly, cover with some rubber sheeting or plywood and leave it. After three days to a week, remove the sheeting to reveal the area absolutely crawling with worms, beetles and crickets!
Of course, this cuts down on the amount you need to feed your birds, but you should also remember that chickens are naturally omnivorous and require a few bugs in their food for protein and other nutrients. It may seem a little yucky, but improving their diet in this way is guaranteed to lead to plumper birds, shinier feathers and richer eggs.
Supplementing Their Feed Naturally
The actual figure will vary, but you may be spending as much as 20c per day per chicken on feed alone, especially if you’re finicky about things like GMOs. Depending on how often they lay, you might be better off getting your free-range eggs at the store.
Finding ways to economize while also improving the health of your flock is usually a good thing. Setting them out to pasture during the day will help, but planting your own chicken feed is neither difficult not labor-intensive.
Growing Chicken Fodder
Along with bugs and seeds, chickens simply adore their salad, meaning whatever is nearby, green and growing. This can be provided as part of a vegetable garden, with leaves being harvested and thrown to the chickens as they become ready. Alternatively, if you rotate their pasture (perhaps by using a chicken tractor) you can sow an area with a cover crop like rye grass or alfalfa. Just wait for it to reach a decent height before letting your feathered friends loose on it. Even an enclosed space can be spruced up by constructing simple “foraging boxes”: mesh-covered cages placed over growing plants so that chickens can reach the tips, but not munch the plant down to its roots.
Comfrey, for instance, is remarkably easy to grow and contains a whole bunch of nutrients that bolsters the health of a flock and the quality of its eggs. Sunflower seeds are rich in oil and calories, take up very little surface area and look attractive. When mature, simply slice off the entire head and drop it into the run.
Maggots: Hamburger for Chickens
All right, not everybody will be willing to try this, but it does work and poultry doesn’t mind the wriggly little things – quite the opposite, in fact. All you need to make use of this great source of protein is a container with a lid, some old fruit or rancid meat, and the strength of stomach to watch your chickens tear into the result.