I'm working on my first chicken tractor design, but I'm trying to understand predator control. It seems like most of these tractors have plain old poultry netting / chicken wire as the main barrier to the outside world. This is fine for keeping chickens in, but does it really keep predators out? I would expect that a raccoon can and will tear right through one of these things, no? If so, how are you all controlling predators?
Most are inside a protected perimeter. Guard dog, electric net, etc.
Frequent moving keeps the predators cautious.
I put a second layer of wire on the outside, 2x4 welded wire. That plus chicken wire was cheaper than one layer of 1/2 or one inch mesh.
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We are in our fourth year raising pastured poultry in roughly-Salatin-style tractors. First two years were pretty smooth sailing, a few birds killed at night but nothing dramatic. Always the birds were found dead inside in the mornings. I know we had at least one great horned owl who would reach in, either under the lumber or through the 1" chicken wire and kill the bird, but not pull it through. I don't know for certain, but I suspect there may be/has been a four-legged critter involved in this as well.
We never have a break-in until last summer, when something--apparently moderately large--got into a shelter with some turkeys. It broke through a spot where two pieces of chicken wire were joined entirely insufficiently. I count that as my fault, as it never happened before and hasn't happened since. When we first started I was concerned that we might have issues, but now I count one break-in in 20 months of active use as a fluke that is unlikely to occur again.
We've since made a few changes, though. Around the inside perimeter we have attached a layer of 1x6 lumber (actually more like 1/4 to 1/2" thick, cast-offs from a local mill), above that about 8" of 1/2" mesh hardware cloth, and above that the 1" chicken wire. This gives us better security down low at bird level.
We've also added a roosting structure to each shelter to get the birds off the ground. So far this works better in theory than in practice. One, the birds have to actually roost. We set them up by hand at dusk the first two nights, but most of them jumped back down. Now (about 6 weeks of age), curiously, of the birds that voluntarily roost, probably 90% are Barred Rocks (this batch consists of Barred Rocks, White Rocks, New Hampshires, and Speckled Sussex). Two, I'm not convinced that the birds on the roost will necessarily stay on the roost in the presence of a predator. I know for certain the birds on the ground will move around when flustered, perhaps coming into reach of the predator. So the roosts may not necessarily keep the birds safe.
As for specific predator control, we now set foot-hold traps at points around the shelter perimeter. (Check with your state to verify that out-of-season trapping/hunting is legal in such an instance.) We actually caught an owl last week this way, which I was decidedly ambivalent about.
Electronet would work for four-legged predators, but it wouldn't keep the owls away (or hawks, during the day). Plus, it's just a pain to work with more often than not.
Perhaps the best solution is a guard dog, but we're not quite there yet.
Joel uses a goose as a guard dog. If you use more than one, they tend to hang out together in a flock and don't do their work as a guard animal, so you only need one. The bigger and meaner, the better. But then you will also have to deal with an aggressive goose when you go to move your cages. Bring along an old tennis racket: you may have to teach the goose a lesson.
Lamas are also good guard animals. They'll keep coyotes at bay.
Part of Salatin's design is to have a couple of boards (1 x 4's) that you keep on top of each of the chicken tractors. That way, if you've got a low spot, you grab a board and wedge it into the dirt along the side of the cage to fill the gap, so the predator can't easily reach under or dig their way under. In his words, the raccoon or possum tends to walk around in circles around the cage looking for an easy way to get in, rather than test the board and see if it's loose.
In my experience, possums are as dumb as a bag of rocks. I regularly catch them wondering into a box trap that isn't even baited. They are easy to thin out. Raccoons, on the other hand, are very smart and hard to catch. The little ones will go into a baited box trap, but the big ones are pretty clever. But if you've got possums digging under your tractors, just put a couple of box traps out there, bait them with some pet food or kitchen scraps, and you'll thin them out pretty quickly. What you choose to do with them is your business, but they do heat up a compost pile nicely --- just don't turn it for a month or 3 --- stinky.
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