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Chicken Pens, Chicken Mobiles

 
jesse markowitz
Posts: 151
Location: Hudson Valley, NY
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So I've been working on a Joel Salatin and Alan Savory inspired farm for a few months now, so I have a pretty good understanding of some of these mobile chicken designs now. Here's my take on them.

1st- movable chicken pens. What you do is build a pen about 10 feet long by 6 feet wide, and keep 50 broilers (chickens for meat) in them. The birds initially go into the pens when they are 2-3 weeks old and stay until they're ready to slaughter, about 9-10 weeks old.

We currently use up to 8 pens in the field at all times, so with 50 birds in each pen we have 400 out in the field total.

Pros- very cheap to build, very easy to use, no equipment needed for any moving.
Cons- does not provide adequate protection, the chickens do not get to really move about, food and water takes a lot of work for relatively small batch of animals, chickens get out all the time, cannot use pens on all types of fields.

So in one of Salatin's books he raves about how great these mobile pens are. He says that you can move each pen in 4 minutes, and that they are super easy to use. That is kind of true. In a perfect scenario, these pens are great. My issue with them is that it doesn't take much to have this setup go horribly wrong. We have lots of sets of animals on the farm currently (meat pigs, sows, milk cows, dry cows, calves, sheep, egg laying chickens, these guys) and without a doubt these pens have given us as much trouble as the rest of the other animals combined.

You move the pens by inserting a dolly onto one end of the pen (this props up the frame of the pen slightly off the ground, reducing friction), and then pull the other side of the pen across the field with a chain. You pull the pen every morning exactly one pen length down your pasture so they have access to fresh grass. However what I am finding out is that the pen has to be put on a VERY level plane every day, otherwise problems arise. If you move the pen onto a part of the field that has a ridge or is undulating in any way, this creates gaps for chickens to escape. It's not uncommon to find that when you come back to check on them in the afternoon, you'll have about 15 chicks out of the pen, frantically circling the pen trying to get back in. This leads to you having to try and catch 15 birds in the middle of the day. It is hard to perform this task without feeling really stupid. What we do to alleviate this problem is to bring 2x4s out into the field in order to cover up any gaps we might see between the bottom of the pen and the ground. This helps the problem but if the chicks are really wanting to get out, say on a hot day, they will get out anyway.

Another problem with these pens is that they do not provide adequate protection. We will have 800 broilers go through this system this season, and we might bring 650 to slaughter, if we're lucky. We have had lots of skunks burrow under the pen at night and kill 2 chickens or so each night. They never eat the whole chicken, so what they leave for you are chicken parts that you have to clean up the next morning. We also have electric netting surrounding all of our pens, but even when the netting is carrying a hot charge, it doesn't seem to deter predators for too long.

With both of these issues- chickens getting out and predators getting in- I will say that these problems are much worse for your really young chicks. Once the chickens are around 2 months old, they almost never get out and their predator problems are not bad. So you could just wait 2 months before using these pens and they should work relatively well, as long as you have flat pasture. However my feeling is that if you have to wait that long to use the pens, you probably shouldn't use the pens at all.

Also, we have to bring food and water to each pen by hand. We have a drip waterer thingy that is attached to a 5 gallon bucket on the ceiling of the pen. This means that you have to take out a hose to the pen and fill the 5 gallon bucket up each morning. This is not that bad of a hassle, but you have to do this for each pen. Compare that to our Egg Layer Chicken Mobile, whose water system is on an automatic timer. It takes us one motion to make sure our mobile egg layers have water for the day, where with our broilers, we have to fill up a bucket for each pen (we have 8 pens going at the peak of the season) twice a day.

Its not a terrible system all in all, however I don't particularly enjoy it either. I do think its an upgrade from coop and run, but for all the extra effort you put in every day, I really don't think you get much in return at all. That being said, if someone is desperate to get into farming on a small scale with no budget, this could be a nice start.

I'll put up a review of the chicken mobile later on.
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Juniper Zen
Posts: 31
Location: Oakland, California
dog greening the desert tiny house
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jesse markowitz wrote:This leads to you having to try and catch 15 birds in the middle of the day. It is hard to perform this task without feeling really stupid.

Makes for quite the entertainment, though. (cue Yakety Sax)
 
Rose Pinder
Posts: 401
Location: Otago, New Zealand
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thanks for this write up, very interesting.

I'm not a great fan of keeping birds in cages (although in your photos the amount of space doesn't look too bad), but one thought is can you have a wide spaced chicken wire floor like people do with rabbits, to keep chooks in and predators out?

What's the reason for using a cage system like this rather than the free range/moblie homes system that people use for eggs?
 
jesse markowitz
Posts: 151
Location: Hudson Valley, NY
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Rose Pinder wrote:thanks for this write up, very interesting.

I'm not a great fan of keeping birds in cages (although in your photos the amount of space doesn't look too bad), but one thought is can you have a wide spaced chicken wire floor like people do with rabbits, to keep chooks in and predators out?

What's the reason for using a cage system like this rather than the free range/moblie homes system that people use for eggs?


I think the wire cages on the floor would make the pen even harder to move in medium/high grass. However that shouldn't be a problem if you're mowing the pasture down, which you might want to do anyway with these pens.

As for the reasoning of using this system, the only thing I see is a much lower startup cost. Everything else is better with the big mobile homes/eggmobile we have on the farm. I'll try and do a writeup of the ones we have here the next time I can. As for free range, I've never seen it implemented in a way that doesn't create a disaster.

I'd actually be really really interested in trying the setup that geoff lawton shows on the Zaytuna farm youtube video he put up.
 
Rose Pinder
Posts: 401
Location: Otago, New Zealand
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These people are doing free range egg production, using pasture and mobile houses. It's semi-Salatin style (I think they rotate the chooks and the cattle). They've been doing this for a number of years.

http://www.wanakaorganics.co.nz/products/pasture-fed-eggs/

They lose a few birds to hawks I think, but there aren't too many other pedators (stoats?). Which might explain why they do their meat birds in cages (individual birds are more valuable in meat production?).
 
Michael Bushman
Posts: 143
Location: Sacramento, CA
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Two easy improvements

Make a trolley that will slide under a unit so they are easy to move but you only need one trolley so expense is low.

Fence the undersides with chicken wire, the chickens can peck at anything on the ground but predators can't get in.

Owls are major predator's of skunks and won't bother your chickens in the cages, do you have owl boxes and nesting sites?
 
jesse markowitz
Posts: 151
Location: Hudson Valley, NY
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2nd- chicken mobile homes/eggmobile

pros- can hold many more birds, time needed for feeding and caring of chickens is much smaller per bird relative to pens, can easily collect large amounts of manure for use elsewhere, animals are more protected AND have more access to vegetation simultaneously
cons- initial startup cost, some carpentry skill required if you’re going to build it yourself, tractors are needed to move homes

For our egg layers at the farm we use two large chicken mobile houses. The 2 houses are moved around the farm in a typical pasture rotation style. Altogether we have about 200 to 250 egg laying birds in our operation at any given time, meaning 125 birds per house. This produces about 12-16 carton of eggs every day that we sell for I believe $4.50 a carton. The houses are built on frames used for hay wagons, and I’d say the frames are about 15’x10’ or so. Each house has 20 nest boxes built into one length of the mobile, and also contains roosts for the birds inside.

The chickens have 2 sources of protection 1-their house, and 2- the electric netting that we surround the houses with. During the day, the chickens can move freely in and out of the chicken houses by means of a little staircase that leads to a ‘doggy door’ built into each chicken house. This allows them to be free to graze on all the grass inside of the electric netting we give them. This usually is about 40’x40’. What is nice about this system is that you can be very flexible with the space you give your chickens. We usually just give them flat pasture to eat down, but we are going to experiment with fencing them by other areas so they can do some work for us, i.e. cleaning areas alongside stone walls. You could never do this with the field pen system.

In the months I’ve seen this system, I’ve never seen us lose one chicken to predation with this method. Compared to the pen system, the egg mobile chickens are seemingly less protected during the daytime. The chickens in the pen are completely enclosed at all times, while the egg mobile birds are much more exposed during the entire day. And we do have many hawks in the area, so keeping the chickens outside without some kind of overhead barrier can be a giant problem. However the reason why the egg mobile chickens never get eaten is that they are given enough protection by the houses themselves when the chickens do need protection. Whenever I do see a hawk get close enough to be a danger, enough of the chickens will start freaking out, and all of the chickens will either quickly run into the house, or even run under the belly of the egg mobile and roost on one of the axles. Its pretty fun to see. At around sunset, all the chickens will walk back into the egg mobile and one of us goes out and locks the doggy door to make sure no predators can get in.

This means that at night, while predator concerns are the biggest, we not only have electric fencing up, but we also have all of our chickens enclosed in a house sitting a couple of feet off of the ground.

As for feeding the chickens, we give them about 2 or 3 5 gallon buckets of grain per day. They are also eating whatever they can get to in the pasture. It takes very little time to feed the chickens. We feed them once in the morning when we open up the doors to let them out, and a second time mid day when we collect eggs. The reason why feeding these chickens is so easy is because we are keeping them all together in one location, meaning it only takes one action to feed all of them at once. With the field pens we use, we use up to 8 different pens at a time, which means we have to fill up 8 different feeders. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the extra time it takes to feed animals really builds up when you think about all the time being wasted over the course of a season.

Giving them water works similarly. We have a hose that fills up a trough that we keep by the egg mobiles. The hose has a timer hooked up to it, so every time we are at the egg mobiles we turn the timer on to fill the trough for about 15 minutes. Again, this requires one action and takes care of all of the egg mobile chickens. This is much better compared to the field pens, which requires us to check each individual water bucket attached to each pen multiple times a day. Again, it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the time really adds up.

Another benefit I’ve noticed is being able to catch chicken manure. The chickens do most of their pooping inside the egg mobiles. This means over the course of a few weeks, a substantial amount of chicken manure can be collected from the mobile and moved to other parts of the farm where it can be put to good use. This is not an option with free range systems or field pen systems, because the chickens cannot concentrate their poop in any one area. We however do not take advantage of this at the farm. We really just let the mobile fill up with poop and dump wood chips down every few weeks or so. I’m actually shocked at how the mobile does not smell at all when you do go inside of it. Its a little musty, but its not what I expected.

As for collecting eggs, the nest boxes can be accessed from the outside. The boxes are built so they are just about head height, depending on your size, so the egg retrieving is as simple as opening the nest box door, and collecting the eggs. There’s no daily easter egg hunt necessary. It takes 1 person 15 minutes to collect all of the eggs for a day.

Depending on the area we give them, the chickens will eat down the grasses they’re confined to in around 5-6 days. Once the area the are on needs a rest, we simply get up in the morning, take down the electric netting, hitch the tractor to the mobiles, move the water system down, reset the netting for the new pasture, and let the chickens out. This process would take 1 person a 25 minutes, or 20 minutes if they’re really fast and/or the stars align that day.

All in all, this system is GREAT. Its very easy to use, and I think it makes the farm a good amount of money. The only downsides I see are the startup costs. The infrastructure needed in order to do this is way more than most other small chicken operations I’ve seen out there, but if I had the money to try this, I would do this in a heartbeat.

I tried to write this in a rush, so I’m sorry if everything is not too well explained. I’ll try and post more pictures if people need some clarifications on things.
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jesse markowitz
Posts: 151
Location: Hudson Valley, NY
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Michael Bushman wrote:Two easy improvements

Make a trolley that will slide under a unit so they are easy to move but you only need one trolley so expense is low.

Fence the undersides with chicken wire, the chickens can peck at anything on the ground but predators can't get in.

Owls are major predator's of skunks and won't bother your chickens in the cages, do you have owl boxes and nesting sites?


We use a trolley. It doesn't really help much once the grasses get high enough. Everything likes to just stick and get stuck together. The grasses will get caught around the wheels and bind them up. I'd compare it to trying to remove a large amount of stickerbushes all day.

I don't like the idea of netting the underside. Its more work, more stuff that can break, more material to create friction and stick to things, and at a certain point of overbuilding these things, you may as well just keep them in a spare bedroom in your house.

In general I think the field pen idea is just not great. Concerning Paul talking about an eco scale, its like going from a 0 to a 3 or a 4. And when it comes to doing 'feel good' farming, it is just hollow to me. The birds are trapped, they're not well protected, and they don't have enough space to really be chickens. If that's all you can do, I don't blame you. I would even do it if I were starting up a farm and really needed to make some quick money for other operations, but I doubt most people would want it to be a permanent part of their farm if they had the choice.

Using owl boxes is a good idea. I'll have to remember that for next season.

And as for the field pens- we have gone about a month now without losing a chicken. I think if you can just wait until the chickens are big enough, for some reason that solves some predator problems. Although I'm assuming bigger weasel-y animals wouldn't be as selective as our skunks are being this season, and would try and kill a chicken of any size.
 
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