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Geoff Lawton's "Chicken Tractor on Steroids" now live!

 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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Here's the FULL VERSION. Log in with your email address to view it (18 mins)

In permaculture, the waste of one element becomes a beneficial product for another element. See how chickens get their full nutrition from the waste of other elements while simultaneously building rich compost to extend the abundance of the veggie garden, food forest and beyond. In the full version of this video, Geoff explains how he compares two chicken tractoring systems: one that is grain fed and one that is compost fed. There are a similar number of hens. The hens in the compost system are older birds. The compost fed chickens perform equally well to the grain fed chickens and many times outperform them in egg laying. Geoff also talks about how the chickens adapted to the compost system and the method of using both chickens and humans to create really rich compost in 30 days. There's some good stats on the amount of work in this method as opposed to the Berkeley method (18 day compost) which Geoff also likes. This video is a really fun and educational watch.

Here's the short version:

 
David Livingston
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Amazing stuff ! As soon as I saw this I decided to redraw my plans for a chicken tractor to try to include composting .
Thanks Jeff !
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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I love the way the chickens photo bomb some of the shots; it made me giggle. And that animation of the tractor moving across the landscape is genius! And hysterical.
 
David Livingston
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I also loved the way he used two tractors and compared! That is science !

David
 
Michael Cox
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Yes, this is a great video.

Compared to what we would want at home this is still "large scale" - I'm thinking 10 chickens max for personal egg production. However, there is lots in here that can be adapted to smaller scale. For example I can't imagine we would produce a meaningful amount of compost from a one week rotation. We'd probably do better on two weeks and give the birds longer on each heap. His move frequency is presumably set by both the state of the pasture and the heap size that that number of birds need.

The simple electro netting looked good as well - quick to move around. I guess you could even reshape the pasture around the heaps without moving the whole tractor on.
 
David Livingston
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Just thinking the chicken aka "the jungle fowl " must have developed this life style in the wild . Roosting in the canopy coming down to the floor of the jungle to eat . Thinking what the floor of a jungle must be like - a huge compost heap recycling matter at a furious rate no wonder they are happy birds !

David
 
David Livingston
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Micheal
Ten chickens max for personal egg production
You must have a big family
I was thinking three only because I was worried they would get lonely. I expect to be giving eggs away regularly as the are only two of us

David
 
R Scott
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25-30 birds is a nice number (minimum mail order size for day olds most places), enough for a few dozen eggs sales/barter with neighbors or family. But they could easily be meat birds as well, graduating most of them to the pot before they would go into egg production (assuming females to keep the noise down). IF you have enough material to FEED them.

I think 3, 6, 12 are better numbers for most single families. I am a family of 11 and don't have enough kitchen scraps for 25-30 birds.

The system could be adapted to non-tractored chickens extremely easily, too. Setting up pile rotation with a standard run would overcome the "nothing but dirt" problem. Use a hog panel (ring or cut into 4 sides) as the bin.
 
Jennifer Wadsworth
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R Scott wrote:I am a family of 11 and don't have enough kitchen scraps for 25-30 birds.


Do you have restaurants or grocery stores nearby that would collect food waste for you? I've even asked neighbors for their scraps and receive "donations" at my gate a few times a week.



Also - if you have an enterprising kid - this could be an answer!

 
R Scott
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I live in a poor rural midwest community, very little fresh food consumed and none goes into the waste stream.
 
David Livingston
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R Scot
Can you harvest any acorns ? or similar stuff ? Stale bread , stale pasta, taco ? just to bulk out what compost you can get for the birds until you have eaten enough birds that you have a managable number for the waste youf family produce .

David.
 
R Scott
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I just wanted to point out that the input stream is probably anyone's limit to how many chicks you can run (or how much feed you will still have to buy). Even if you still have to feed them additional grain by scattering it in your pile of grass clippings and leaves, you are getting more work out of them than you would have for no extra inputs.

I have even thought up an improvement to his design! If you build your coop as a tractor the same size as your compost cage, you can just move the coop out of the way and put the cage up around the initial pile--saving one handling of the pile.
 
Abe Connally
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Can someone post a synopsis of the important information of the video? I can't watch big videos on my limited internet connection. I am wondering how much compost per number of chickens. Like, 10 chickens = 100 lbs of compost a week, or whatever the amount is. Anything else that is important to this would be very useful.

We use rabbit and animal manures in a similar system to supplement chicken feed. Many herbivore manures actually contain a lot of feed value for poultry. Rabbit manure, in particular, is 20% protein. And the insects that feed on the manure are even better.
 
Eivind Bjoerkavaag
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synopsis:

An electronet that fences in the chickens, moving along the landscape, leaving the finished compost behind them.

Healthier for chickens eating just from the scratch compost pound, with food scraps, insects and microorganisms, with more eggs than on just grain in similar setup. The chickens took a little time to adapt, but got much better result in time, records kept proving it.

Exeptionally good compost structure, says Geoff that has mastered the art of composting. "This is something very special" - geoff lawton

Wouldn't have to be fenced in if it hadn't been next to their food production system. (or predator pressure, my comment)

It moves along 4 metres a week, a 4 metre move in the landscape every week, leaving a 4 week old heap of really well turned compost every week - giving the chickens a renewed interest in the heaps.

Egg production without much cost, this gives in addition very high quality compost, better than the twice as intensive Berkely 18 day method, and it gives eggs from 30 hens in addition. In other words: You get 300-600 eggs for transfering to a system that makes you better compost with less work. Wow. How's that for a deal?

Their perches is inside the car trailer, that folds up, with bedding underneath it.

The freshest compost heap is just behind the trailer and gets fed the bedding from the last week, serving as an innoculant. In addition comes manure from other sources, horses and cows from the farm, and food scraps etc. Every week the cage is deassembled and assembled, and every heap is beeing turned by hand when moving the fence 4 metres forward, leaving the oldest heap behind - for use directly on plants.
 
Abe Connally
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Thank you for that, Eivind! I appreciate you taking the time to post that.

Was there any mention of how much compost is added per week, like in volume or weight? I'm wondering how much material is required to maintain those ~30 chickens. From the photos and short video, it looks like the cage holds about a cubic meter of compost, or maybe a bit less. I assume they add that material once a week, so that would lead me to believe that the chickens need a cubic meter of compost each week, but have access to several of these piles.
 
Eivind Bjoerkavaag
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Yeah, it looks like it could hold a cubic meter, but it didn't seem any of them in the videos ever got that amount, allthough they did say they had a fairly large kitchen, and with bedding and a few large animals to add manure, it adds up to what I guess quickly can become around half a cubic meter. Anyone on here with a better estimate?
 
Matt Smaus
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The big questions I have are:

(1) Is it just green kitchen waste, or does it include bread product scraps? What about meat and dairy scraps? This makes a big difference because if you're substituting farm waste (cabbage leaves, weeds, etc.) for kitchen waste, you won't have the grain products.

(2) How would this work in a cooler climate? Or how does it work in the cool season at their farm? I would guess the compost process slows down quite a bit, and here in Washington state the worms and other small critters might not make it if they're constantly being turned toward the cold. And, again, if substituting farm waste for kitchen waste, you won't have much in winter.

(3) And yes, what everyone else said: how MUCH compost per day per chicken?

Also, I think we'd want to cover the run in Western Washington, most of the year. That's a lot of floppy plastic, but those compost piles will get soggy and useless otherwise.

It's a very enticing idea, and seems like a productive system, but its efficiency seems to rely on scraps from a commercial-scaled kitchen, or several commercial-scaled kitchens. If I were raising a dozen birds at home, I couldn't produce so much waste from my own kitchen or garden, which means running around scrounging it up from neighbors or restaurants. If that means half a cubic yard per day, that's a lot of work. If it takes half an hour to scrounge it up, there's an opportunity cost to that. That is at least as much time as what it takes to flip the piles every week. On the other hand, if I were raising 450 laying birds on a farm (the scale we've done it at here in the past), that would mean 16 cubic yards per day. That, my friends, is a shit ton. If you weren't sure what a shit ton is as opposed to a ton or a metric tonne, it is whatever 16 cubic yards of farm waste weighs.

It seems viable to me for a nonprofit with a farm and a large commercial kitchen on the premises, or maybe for a large homestead where compost piles are being made and turned regularly anyway. But to make it viable on the smaller home scale, or at the enterprise scale...I can't see it, unless, or course, it were a secondary or complementary enterprise to a composting enterprise, which, funny enough, is exactly how the Vermont Compost Company makes it viable.
 
Matt Smaus
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Hm, mining Geoff's responses in the comments section for the film on the website, I come up with the following gems:

  • They're in the process of working out the ratio of manure/food scraps to chickens, presumably to share.
  • In cold climates, Geoff would make the piles 3 times bigger to maintain heat.
  • He'd cover the last (finishing) pile in rainy climates.
  • He thinks the piles could have been kept a little moister.
  • He says "no problem" about meat scraps.
  • Says you could scale the compost pile down to a square meter and still get good heat off it.
  • When a guy points out that the labor involved in gathering materials is disproportionate to the value of the egg production, Geoff (or someone at Zaytuna writing in his stead) gives, to be honest, a totally nonsensical response. Maybe he misunderstood the question.
  • Also this interesting bit of info: "The birds are introduced at 6 months old, butchered after 2 years of laying as dual purpose birds. We raise own on birds with broody hens and keep the hens as new recruits and butcher the roosters at 17 weeks."

  •  
    Abe Connally
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    Matt, from what I can see, it's just vegetable scraps and animal manures. No grain products, like bread, though if you had a bit of that, it wouldn't hurt anything. But, there doesn't seem to be a significant portion.

    Meat scraps and slaughter waste are excellent feeds for chickens. So is dairy waste, especially if it can be soaked up by something.

    Where do you get the figure of 1 cubic yard a day? I thought it was per week.

    If you have other animals and manure, you can make this viable. The majority of nutrition comes from the manure, not the kitchen scraps. That whole trash can worth of kitchen scraps is likely only a few lbs of actual dry matter. From the image I saw, it was mostly lettuce and leaves, which have very little nutrition for chickens.
     
    R Scott
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    Yeah, the kitchen scraps they tossed in were there to get scratched, not eaten. I would think fruit scraps would lure in extra protein for the chicks, too.
     
    Abe Connally
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    Nadia Abu Yahia Lawton replied on the comments section with this in reference to quantity per week:
    I have been adding between 1/3 to 1 m3


    So, that's in line with what you can see in the video. So, for about ~30 chickens, you need ~1m3 of material a week.
     
    Matt Smaus
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    Thing is, as far as I know, chickens are designed to eat seeds, not just insects. That's what the gizzard's for. Chickens that are truly free ranging will scratch for bugs and seeds. So what is the impact of no seeds in the diet? These are like paleo chickens.
     
    Abe Connally
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    Matt Smaus wrote:Thing is, as far as I know, chickens are designed to eat seeds, not just insects. That's what the gizzard's for. Chickens that are truly free ranging will scratch for bugs and seeds. So what is the impact of no seeds in the diet? These are like paleo chickens.

    why do you assume there are no seeds? manure from herbivores is full of seeds and plant matter.

    I think you overestimate the amount of seeds available in the wild. Grass typically seeds in the fall for most climates, and for a while, there are seeds, but come spring, they're mostly gone. And really, there is very little in terms of seeds until late summer, at the earliest. Yet, the ground birds still do well, regardless. I think that's because they eat a wide variety of things, not just seeds or insects.
     
    Matt Smaus
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    manure from herbivores is full of seeds and plant matter.


    That's a very good point, Abe -- I was thinking primarily of the kitchen scraps. Although it's not always true, either -- cows grazing spring grass have very few seeds in their manure.

    I think you overestimate the amount of seeds available in the wild.


    I don't think that's the case. I'm watching every mud patch in our fields and pastures right now erupt with tiny delicate blades of grass and little folded-up clover seedlings. There are A LOT of seeds in the wild -- the good old weed seed bank that farmers are always trying to deplete. That said, you're right to point out that they probably eat more bugs and fewer seeds in the wild. Possibly much fewer seeds. Plus, if paleo works for people, maybe it would work for chickens!

    I don't mean to be a cynic here, but I'm looking at it critically because if it could work on our farm, we have a ready market for the eggs, but it would have to be at scale. 450 birds or so. Organic feed is so expensive that the costs don't make it worth it, but farm waste is not.
     
    Cj Sloane
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    Matt Smaus wrote:
    I think you overestimate the amount of seeds available in the wild.


    I don't think that's the case. I'm watching every mud patch in our fields and pastures right now erupt with tiny delicate blades of grass and little folded-up clover seedlings. There are A LOT of seeds in the wild -- the good old weed seed bank that farmers are always trying to deplete. That said, you're right to point out that they probably eat more bugs and fewer seeds in the wild. Possibly much fewer seeds. Plus, if paleo works for people, maybe it would work for chickens!


    Just think, it wasn't till the modern era that chickens were fed lots of grain. Before mechanization it was too valuable for chickens (or cow, or pigs).

    Also, take a look at what the wild birds are eating right now. We still have several inches of snow & ice. I'm not sure what the wild turkeys are eating but I do see them picking through the snow. The robins have been eating the staghorn sumac heads non-stop and I would imagine that's full of seeds.
     
    Manfred Eidelloth
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    I wonder: What is the advantage of building piles at all, in this system?
    Here people say the main advantage of hot composting is, that weed seeds are sterilized by the high temperature.
    And of course hot composting is faster.
    But should not the hens eat most of seeds? And would not many seeds survive in the material the hens scratch away from the pile (if not eaten by the hens).
    And does the heat inside the pile not stop more complex critters (other than bacteria and ray fungus) to develop?
    Would more complex critters not provide more or better food for the hens?
    Could you not simply spread the material on the ground?
    We call this “Flächenkompostierung”. I do not know if there is a English word for it. Perhaps area composting? Like trees simply letting their leafs fall to the ground. I have not seen nature build a hot compost pile by now.
    If you want to harvest the compost after the hens are done with it, you have to rake it together anyway.
    And you could simply use some sprinkler system to keep the stuff moist and all the little critters at work.
    Perhaps the pile building is necessary due to the hot and dry climate in Australia?
     
    Karen Walk
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    How hot does a 1m3 pile get? It seems small enough that it wouldn't get that hot before the chickens pull it apart again. Regardless, I can think of some other benefits other than heat for a pile:

    1. Up to a point, the depth of the pile creates more varied environments for grubs and worms
    2. The pile will help regulate moisture (as another posted pointed out).
    3. Building the pile up again makes it "new" to the chickens. My experience with other species is that boredom can be a limiting factor for productivity.

    Depending on your production needs and resources, maybe less pile re-building would work. My guess is it would be less productive. Depending on your setup and goals, less work and less production might be a good solution.
     
    Michael Cox
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    I was wondering exactly that. Why are we building heaps rather than just treating the whole area as a sheet mulch/sheet compost? I don't like the idea of rebuilding heaps over and over - it seems like we are fighting nature for little gain. Likewise, I think we can do better than taking the compost to then spread it out in other locations.

    Surely we can can pen the chickens over the area we want to prepare. Dump organic material in with them and let them scratch it evenly over the bed area. I've thought about how you could make a useful temporary compost enclosure. I think just some strawbales on edges to make a bay with 3 sides. Dump your materials into/on the heap and you will satisfy the need for depth without them totally destroying the heap.
     
    Peter Ellis
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    It is worth remembering that three are very few "recipes" in permaculture and that implementation of principles varies from site to site and application to application.

    Geoff took us to Vermont Compost and showed us how a commercial scale compost producer was utilizing chickens in their production process and feeding the chickens entirely with what they got working the compost pile. That was fascinating, but most of us are not working with commercial scale compost production.

    So now Geoff has shown us that feeding chickens on compost, with no commercial feed, can be scaled down to a small farm operation.

    If this suits your operation, then you are pretty much set to go. The chickens can thrive on this diet, and you can get multiple benefits from it. Eggs, good compost, chickens.

    If it is still too large a scale for you (certainly is for me, I have three hens!) then there is further adaptation required.

    It probably won't work on my scale, for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is I don't have access to quantities of manure. The kitchen scraps and other vegetative waste is a lower hurdle for me than the manure.

    And yet, I got a definite benefit from this video, even for my quarter acre suburban plot with three whole chickens. I have a couple of garden beds buried several inches thick in last fall's leaves, some branches and hay/straw. I am going to fence the hens in on these beds for a couple of weeks, letting them scratch through, shred the leaves, feast on the bugs hiding in there, mix in their manure, and generally do all the work of composting the mulch for me.

    I won't be feeding them for free year round, but I will be supplementing their diet tremendously and getting loads of work out of them improving my miserable sandy so-called soil.

    The trick with all of the ideas and techniques that people share is to spot the elements that you can utilize in your situation and apply those to best effect for you.

    And of course, sometimes the idea just doesn't suit your needs. Those should get filed away for that situation one day where your needs are met by that technique you didn't have any use for.

    I won't be piling up compost k for the hens and I won't be moving it around. I am taking the hens to where I want stuff composted and letting them work right there. For me, it makes more sense than building piles and moving the materials multiple times. I think there is often something to be said for moving stuff as little as possible - every move is more work that has to be done - so designing for minimal movement of elements is an efficiency goal. Even so, sometimes you need to move stuff through from one area to another.

    Geoff is moving manure and scraps to the chickens, and then to the garden beds. Without the chickens, he would still be moving those items from where they are to where he is composting them, and then to the garden beds. Same number of moves, but with the chickens, he is doing less pile turning, and gets eggs for free.

    Look for the principle and how to adopt it for your use, rather than for a recipe

     
    Sue Rine
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    I've begun to try out Geoff's system with my 10 hens. I don't have a trailer but an easily moveable dome. I just prop up one side on something so the hens can get out. I tried electronet but they just walked through it so I then used some large netting with wind break cloth attached to it. I already had the roll available stored in a shed. A few hens have started flying over and creating havoc in the adjacent hugel bed so tonight they are locked in the dome...but I am undaunted! The next try will be the remains of a roll of chicken netting. It's a little taller than the netting I have installed now. And I'll also clip the feathers on one wing of each to try to stop them flying over. If that doesen't work, I may have to get some of the really tall netting. I'm determined to stop buying expensive organic chickenpellets. They have soya meal imported from the States. I'm in New Zealand. Maybe organic but NOT sustainable!
     
    Sue Rine
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    Anyone got any thoughts on adapting this for ducks. Mine are in a large, free range pen with a pond. I have about 20 and they consume inordinate quantities of expensive pellets. I'm wondering whether, since ducks don't scratch like chickens, maybe they will need premade compost heaps that have been 'seeded' with worms then each day just open up a section of the heap for them. Any other thoughts or experiences gratefully received.
     
    Cj Sloane
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    Consider raising things that will draw in slugs like shiitakes.
    See this thread.
     
    Sue Rine
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    And again! I'm pretty sure that the point of the hot composting is the speed at which the pile actually becomes compost; a necessary feature for the system to work since the hens need access to mature compost.
     
    Sue Rine
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    Thank you so much Cj Verde. I probably won't be able to do exactly that but it has given me food for thoughtabout what would work. Goodness knows we have enough slugs....how to lure or relocate them to the duck run. Hmm, plotting!
     
    Cj Sloane
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    Comfrey might host slugs (pretty sure they hose snails)- they don't eat it but live there. I'm not sure if you'd want to put it in the pen with the ducks or outside the pen to you can supervise the ducks harvesting the slugs.
     
    Milo Stuart
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    Yes!

    Wanted to share my adaption of Geoff's system with ya'll.

    Fly-in-Coop..
    We have a fly-in coop on wheels rolled up to an old movable (takes 2 people) hoophouse.. It's been set up for almost a year now and haven't lost any of our (un-clipped) ladies to predation.. and we've got em all here ha.. racoons, skunks, foxes, bobcats, lions and bears o my.. Oh we had them freeranging but the red-tail hawks were diving on our little bantams!

    Compost Cage

    The initial layering of our in-coop compost cage from the bottom up.. Redwood needles..chicken pooped straw..rough worm casting..urine/water.. topped with daily greens from the garden (chicory, comfrey, artichoke leaves, seeded brassicas, favas and lots of tree kale)! Lots of snails come along for the ride.. The chickens are pretty ruthless with them.. smack shell and all! Little dinosaurs

    We move our (13) ladies once every week and a half or so.. (oh they have free-range evenings a couple time a week as well.) During the week I flip the caged compost a couple of times over on itself, keeping it contained in the cage. The day before we move the coop I un-cage the suuper rough compost and let them spread it allll over the place for us... Now it's all ready for seed.

    On movement day we let the ladies free-range.. Then we seed their old spot with grains/nz clover/trefoil. So far golden flax/nz clover/trefoil and rye/vetch/clover/(a little) diakon.. works great.. this week I'm trying amaranth/trefoil/pinto bush beans. (Oh I save some of the rough compost to use at the bottom of potted plant starts and such as well..)

    Annyway fun stuff.. Especially the startlingly orange eggs. yum

    Thanks ya'll hope I made some sense.. Here are some pictures if not!
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    Fly-in-Coop.. Angled face so critters can't scamper up to hole
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    Crusin. Caged compost in background..
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    Takeoff! Most don't need the stand but it's kinda fun
     
    Milo Stuart
    Posts: 24
    Location: Mendocino Coast, CA
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    Here's a couple more pictures.. And a riddle!

    "A box without hinges, key, or lid,
    yet golden treasure inside is hid." -Tolkien
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    She's happy I swear!
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    hey hey hey
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    Week old and seeded chicken spot on the right
     
    Peter Ellis
    Posts: 1304
    Location: Central New Jersey
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    Fun stuff. Currently using my three hens to prep garden beds, tearing up the mulch that's been sitting on them all winter. We'll cycle them through the beds over a few weeks, giving them a week at each spot, to tear up the mulch, add their fertilizer, scratch it all in and clean out some portion of the potential garden bug problems while they're at it.

    Adds new depth to "composting in place"
     
    jimmy gallop
    Pie
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    Location: east and dfw texas
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    bee chicken forest garden hunting trees woodworking
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    Here is my attempt to post a pic and
    this run is attached to my chicken pen and they can come and go in it as they please 70 ft long and it takes them about two weeks to clean that space.
    20140218_164651 farmer9989.jpg
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    Karen Walk
    Posts: 122
    Location: VT, USA Zone 4/5
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    Hi Milo - I love your fly-in-coop! Can you provide more details about it? How high does the entrance need to be? What kind of take-off and landing platform is needed? How do you accustom the birds to it?

    I googled "fly-in-coop" but the only results I found were about "flies" in the coop, so any outside links or resources are appreciated!

    Thanks!
     
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