We are passionate practitioners of permaculture - that's one of the reasons we got chickens in the first place. Chickens debug your garden and turn your garbage into compost, while providing you with delicious eggs. We love to see happy free ranging chickens as well; it's how they get to display the most natural behaviour, instead of being cooped up and pecking at each other. The eggs of free range chickens are so much better as well; have you ever noticed how much orange the yolks are? That's what we're aiming for!
When we moved to Spain, we had big dreams of free range chickens. Less than a year after arriving, we got our first flock: a rooster (Sanchez), and 4 chickens (the Sanchitas). They stayed with us while their owners were traveling for a few months. The Sanchitas would free range during the day when we were there, and be locked inside a fence at night or when we were away. This was just an ordinary wire fence with heavy wooden posts. Every time the grass inside the chicken run started to get scarce, we would take out all the posts and plant them again somewhere else. This task took us half a day to complete every time - on top of that, the chicken coop was quite heavy so we needed a few extra pairs of hands to moved that as well.
When the Sanchita's owners came back from their travels, they kindly allowed us to keep their chickens for goo! As our chicken system was not a long term solution (and we still had to give back the coop), we did some research on ways to keep chickens so it would benefit us and the land, but also give us as little work as possible.
A fixed run, rotating pastures, free ranging and chicken tractors: pros and cons
There are so many ways to keep chickens, and most of them have many advantages and could work for you, depending on your situation.
If you’ve got limited space, a fixed run is probably your first thought. If there was anything growing in that run when you first put the chickens in, that will soon be all gone; chickens have the habit of eating and scratching everything that grows until it’s gone. There aren’t many plants that can safely be left inside a chicken run without extra measures. On the plus side, you can protect a fixed run like it's Fort Knox - making it very predator proof.
If you’ve got loads of space and not too many predators, free ranging could work for you. Predators really are an issue. Not only could your chickens wander into the open and be spotted by birds (over here, mainly eagles are the ones stealing chickens - but vultures have been known to do that as well); foxes, wolves, a neighbour's dog, even a feral cat could be a problem. A good Livestock Guardian Dog, llamas or alpacas could help with that - but those are not the best investment if you only have a few chickens or live in an urban or suburban situation.
Many people keep their chickens in a fixed run, and maybe let them free range when they’re around to supervise.
Chicken tractor / pastured poultry pen
A third option is a chicken tractor; it works quite well for big, flat fields - especially for meat chickens, who don't really fly anyway. It’s a pen that keeps the chickens inside, safe from predators (and there’s usually shelter for wind and sun as well); it can also be moved easily when the chickens are done with that particular piece of land. Take a look here at Joel Salatin’s pastured poultry pen. The downside of a chicken tractor is that it needs to be moved around often (usually daily); if left in the same place for too long, you would end up with bare soil after all (and that's really not what we permaculturists want!).
The last thing we looked at (and -spoiler- the one we ultimately ended up with) was rotating pastures. Chickens get a certain bit of land to graze, scratch, look for parasites and insects and “clean up”; after a few days to a few weeks (depending on the number of chickens, how big the run is and the type of land), we move the chickens to their next spot.
To us, it’s a win-win:
- The chickens get lots of really fresh and healthy food, so we get the eggs with the nice dark orange yolks - we still give them chicken food on the side so we’re sure they have access all necessary nutrients);
- Bugs and pests around our olive and almond trees are kept a bit under control; also, they scratch up part of the soil around the trees, which keeps the grass down in those places.
- If we put them in a vegetable patch (after we’ve harvested, of course), they will clean it all up: eat all the leftovers and seeds, scratch up all the leftover roots and weeds.
- The patch we put them in will be extra fertilised with lots of chicken poo. Things will regrow much quicker.
So we settled on rotating pastures, but we still had to find the chicken coop design that would suit our needs perfectly… and found the Chickshaw.
The Chickshaw (and our Chickshaw tweaks)
The Chickshaw is what it sounds like: a rickshaw for chickens. It was originally designed by the amazing Justin Rhodes, and you can find the full work description for the original design on Justin's website, Abundant Permaculture.
The main features of the Chickshaw are:
- The rickshaw-ish design, of course; you can pick it up and walk it around easily
- The little door in front turns into a ramp for the chickens when open
- It’s completely closed, by either chicken wire or plastic.
- Even the bottom is completely chicken wired; the idea is that chicken poo will fall through and fertilise the soil beneath it.
- In the original design, the nesting boxes are removable plastic crates.
Being in Europe, measuring in metric and not having the exact same materials available here in the middle of nowhere, Spain, (and being quite stubborn and an insufferable know-it-all at times), DIY-man adapted the design to something he thought would work for us. Also, we made some tweaks that would better suit our weather and soil conditions.
These are the differences between the original Chickshaw and our version
- The original Chickshaw has much more ventilation than ours. We closed off 3 sides with plastic, and only left the front part (next to the door) with just chicken wire.
- The plastic we used was not undulating, but we chose a cellular polycarbonate sheet (this one) to better withstand higher temperatures in summer.
- We also left out the separate plastic nesting boxes; our chickens don’t usually get broody anyway, and as we often get heavy winds and horizontal rains, it just seemed to “open” to us.
- So instead of the nesting boxes you can take out, DIY-man made the whole back one big door.
- The dimensions are also slightly different - we took the measurements of the plastic sheets (200x105 cm) and made the Chickshaw about 200x105x105.
- For some reason, DIY-man didn’t want to make the roof completely on hinges - there’s a part we can open in the middle.
- Our wheels are pneumatic, as we’ve got rocky and bumpy terrain. And because our wheels are pneumatic and smaller, only chicks can get under the house.
- DIY-man also put the wheels slightly askew for greater grip (?). (I think it was just a mistake. He's not admitting it)
These are all the things that are really great about our Chickshaw
- It’s sooo easy to move from one pasture to the other. It really doesn’t weigh much; even I can move it with one hand. Unless we have to go up and down terraces… Everybody needs help with that ;-)
- It’s quite big - so far we’ve not had more than 8 chickens or so in there at the same time, but I’m quite confident about putting up to 15 chickens in there. After all, they’re out and about all day, and they only use the chickshaw to sleep in.
- As we’ve got 3 closed sides (and a roof), it protects the chickens from rain, cold and heath
- As the front and bottom are completely chicken wired, they’re 100% predator proof. Even a grown mouse could probably not get in there. I feel my chickens are completely safe when they’re locked inside their chickshaw.
- I love the door that becomes a ramp when you open it. Even the tiniest of chicks can get inside.
These things don’t work as well as we’d hoped
- There is a reason Justin did not use pneumatic wheels… ours deflate. On the bright side, it’s not too difficult to inflate them again.
- There is also a reason Justin made the Chickshaw as high as he did; his is great for hiding under on sunny and hot days… our chickens just try and find shade under the trees.
- As our Chickshaw is lower to the ground, the back also bumps up some rocks as we drive it somewhere. Nothing really bad, but sometimes we have to remember to keep the front part low, so the back part is higher from the ground.
- I’m not a very tall person, and I can’t reach the bottom of the chickshaw from above (to pick up eggs for instance). Thankfully I can still reach a big part (thanks to the door on the front, and the fact that the back is one big opening panel), but it still leaves me with some dead corners.
- The chicken wire on the bottom doesn’t let the chicken poo through as much as we'd like. There's often some straw on the coop floor, poo gets stuck in the chicken wire on the bottom, and as I can't reach the bottom, I can't easily clean it up. So sometimes, we have to turn the whole thing upside down - and thanks to the big door at the back, I can go in to clean. Not ideal, but the pros still outweigh the cons!
Solar Electric fence for rotating pastures with chickens
We first started using the Chickshaw in the winter of 2015. We would just move it from spot to spot, and the chickens (who were almost completely free ranging by then) would just find back their way by nighttime.
After a big fail involving foxes that spring, our chickens moved to a fixed chicken coop for the summer. The next fall, their run turned into such a mud pool they had to get out in order to stay healthy (and dry) - thankfully, we still had our Chickshaw waiting for us.
This time, we got some electric netting to go with it. As we wanted the chicken run close to the house, we bought an electric controller that we could just hook up to the main power of the house at first.
After some time, we realised how well that electric fence was working: our dog (who likes playing with chickens a bit too much) ran into the thing once and never even dared going near it again! And we heard a fox yelp loudly at night one time as well. We felt more secure leaving the chickens further away from the house, as long as there was an electric fence to protect them. So we bought a little solar fencing kit: it has its own little solar panel and a battery that will keep the fence powered for days, if there is not much sun.
This is the electric controller we have, and we’re really happy with it: (click here to see it on Amazon). It's 12 volt, and has a 5W solar panel. This one is slightly cheaper - 12V as well, but the solar panel is a bit less powerful. Which should still be fine for occasional use.
The poultry netting we got is amazing as well; it's very light, I can pull out the posts myself (when the electricity is off), transport the netting to another place and put it up again in probably about 30 minutes. The special thing about poultry netting is that it has tiny holes at the bottom so not even chicks can escape, and bigger holes higher up. Like in the picture on the right.
We have a portable chicken fence (see more links at the bottom of the post). Fences exist in all colours and lengths - we've got a bright orange one, but dark green is an option as well (but then people might walk into it if they don't see it... Awtch!)
Oh by the way - walking into the fence, touching it when it's on or peeing on it (boys will be boys) gives you quite the shock - but it's totally harmless for most people. I've been shocked by electric fences about a hundred times before the age of 5, and I'm physically ok... I'm dead scared of touching one though. One thing I have in common with our big and bold farm dog.
If you’re still not sure about the perfect way to keep your chickens, Paul Wheaton at richsoil.org has done some fantastic in-depth research (as in, tried it all out) when it comes to different styles of coop & run settings. He compared feed bills, ease to clean, the confinement factor and bug control for all different systems. Read and see it here!