Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Urban Homesteading Part 2: Rotationally Pastured Hens on 1000 Square Feet
Our chickens are definitely the most popular piece of our urban homestead. Most people I talk to think of having chickens as a really big step for them, something they hope to do someday when all the other things are in order, when they are master gardeners and when they just happen to have oodles of free time to care for their urban flock. I agree that chickens take a little time, but they should not be thought of as something you can only do when you reach a certain sustainable benchmark of extra time and expert gardening… that’ll probably never happen!
A few chickens in the back yard can actually be a great place to start your urban homestead. We have three Plymouth Barred Rock Hens. They came to us in November from our friends at Lamppost Farm. They are about two years old and still in their egg laying prime.
We chose to build a small chicken tractor, a design that Steve from Lamppost came up with, for our hen’s home. A chicken tractor is a moveable chicken coup that allows the chickens access to grass below the coup. They can be used for laying hens like ours or for meat birds.
The purpose of a chicken tractor is at least three fold. First, it allows the chickens access to nutritious grass in your lawn. Grass fed chickens produce healthier eggs than those not allowed access to grass and greens. With grass fed hens the yolks of their eggs actually become the healthiest part of the egg. Yolks are rich in Conjugated Linoleic Acid, or CLA, a long chain fatty acid that actually reduces bad cholesterol and helps the body fight cancer! CLA is virtually not found in eggs that come from hens in confinement style industrial farming operations. Even those eggs labeled as coming from “free-range” hens may not have access to enough greens to produce the best quality eggs. Eggs from your backyard chickens, if you make sure they have lots of grass, grains and food scaps, will also be higher in vitamin A, vitamin E, and lots of other good stuff. The yolks become a bright orange compared to the pale yellow we’re all used to, it’s quite remarkable. So, access to grass for your hens equals healthier food for you.
The second thing that a chicken tractor does is it allows you to move the chickens all around your yard, so they eat it intensively, that's called raising "rotationally pastured hens". Rotational pasturing is the way that the best organic grass based farmers are running their farms these days, and you can do it in your own backyard! If you want to learn more do a youtube search for Joel Salatin. You can actually get rotationally pastured hens eggs from Whole Foods, but they are extremely expensive and you can only get a half dozen last time I looked. So, each day we move the tractor about three feet. As Steve says, it’s one of the best parts of the day, watching the chickens all get excited about their fresh patch of grass to eat up. By making them eat intensively the chickens eat everything in that spot and basically thatch your lawn. No need for a lawn mower here! The chicken’s don’t big much and they don’t kill the grass, but they do fertilize with their high nitrogen manure and urine. So your lawn will end up being very healthy. You’ll build better soil over the months and years, and actually create spaces begging to be gardened in. If the chickens are allowed to just go wherever they want in a yard, they’ll just pick and choose what they want to nibble on and not eat the stuff they don’t like, which usually are the weeds. When that happens the weeds can take over. On the other hand, if you were to make a really nice coup and give your hens access to a patch of your yard they would quickly eat everything in that space to the ground. It would get muddy and you would end up buying or growing all of their food. The tractor allows you to move their home to their daily salad bar while the other spots grow back better than before. But, by using a chicken tractor they will feed indiscriminately on all the grass and weeds and make a healthier lawn in the end.
The third reason for a chicken tractor – it keeps them safe. The hens we have are regularly hunted by two large predators, one weighing over 120 pounds. That’s right, our dogs. Chickens can be killed by a number of city dwelling animals, raccoons, skunks, dogs, cats, and probably more things in neighborhoods like Garfield. There are rumors of foxes living in Garfield and Stanton Heights.
A small flock of laying hens can be a lot of fun for kids and for adults. Our kids love to pick salad greens out of our winter garden (which I’ll talk about in later posts) and feed them to the hens. The hens love it too! Through the winter we only went about four weeks with few eggs being laid. When the days are at their shortest the hens almost stop laying eggs. The quickly ramped back up and are now giving us 2 – 3 eggs each day, just the right amount for us (unless Alyssa is really into baking on week). These little girls’ eggs are the easiest way to produce the protein and fat that our bodies need on a regular basis. Unless you think you can get a milking cow or goat and keep it legal in the city, egg layers are the way to go.
Now, for the building of the tractor. Ours actually still needs wheels on it in the back to make it easier to move. Basically it's shaped like an a frame or triangle if you're looking from the front. The rear is solid with to mesh on the sides to give the birds full shelter in rain or wind, that's also where they lay the eggs. There is a door in the front and one smaller one in the back for retrieving the eggs. We used rough cut oak siding on ours, which makes it a little too heavy. You're hens will like the shelter, but can be let out if you want them to have some fun around a fenced in yard some days. They SHOULD return at dusk to their roosts which you build into the tractor. If you're interested in the details of the design or in buying one just like ours from a local farmer (Steve Montgomery), please let me know.