By Krislee Johnson
Free-range of poultry is a great idea for the health of your flock, but it is not for everyone. Initially, my husband and I enjoyed having our flock run about our 25 acres. Not only did the birds enjoy the freedom, it also reduced feed costs during the spring, summer and fall months.
Now that we are a year and a half into our chicken, duck and turkey experience we find ourselves getting tired of a few things that come natural to our feathered friends. We knew we had to make the decision to no longer “open” free-range our birds in order to save our sanity.
Our largest issue was the poo situation, it got everywhere. Yes, I understand that it is a great fertilizer for the lawn but it was also everywhere we didn’t want it to be! On sidewalks, the steps and on every sole of every shoe we own. From time to time it was even found matted into our dog’s fur after they decided to roll in it.
In addition, the chickens were also making a mess of anything that resembled landscaping. They would scratch, scrape, peck and dust bathe anywhere that was comfortable for them. Anything tasty that was within reach, they would be there. Newly planted grass seed, forget about it. Even our raspberry crop was decimated by the little buggers!
My husband had repeatedly threatened to “go postal” on our birds. It was an understandable issue caused directly by this style of “open” free-ranging.
We tried adding gates and lattice to the deck in an effort to keep the chickens from coming into our space. Rock borders were put into place to prevent them from digging under bushes near the deck and up next to the house. Still, the birds came.
As much work as we put into our home it was disheartening to see them destroy it. That is why we decided to usher in fall with some changes. Freedom would have its limitations and the birds would no longer be allowed to run amok.
Transitioning from spring/summer free-range to fall/winter free-range continued as normal. Open reign of the 25 acres narrowed down to the fenced fall garden, kennel pen, covered pen and the coop. This was an adequate area for my 18 chickens and 3 soon-to-be-butchered turkeys. Once winter officially hits, snow will accumulate in the garden and become too deep for them to access.
Our largest change to consider with this new plan was how we would handle the transition next spring. To allow them more freedom while allowing me to plant my garden (no garden access for them) we will have to build and incorporate a chicken tractor.
As I still want the birds to forage for bugs, a chicken tractor will be the best option. I know, some of you are saying, “…but they will still be caged.” The fact of the matter is, they will also be healthier and happier outside the coop.
The security of a mobile pen will protect the birds from an ever increasing number of predators. Beyond that, they will still be able to catch bugs, eat tasty greens and fertilize the yard. The key here? They will be contained to areas WE designate.
Now, that’s not to say that this plan won’t be work, it will be. Moving the tractor daily will be essential. The logistics of feeding and watering will take on a whole new meaning once the proximity to food storage and a water hose changes.
A tractor design allowing ease of access to daily chores must be considered. And, because I like the security of the coop during inclement weather, there is one key element I want incorporated into my tractor. A human(ish) sized door on each end.
With a large door on each end I should easily be able to feed, water and gather eggs without stooping over. Another important function of the doors will be allowing me to transfer chickens from the tractor to the coop. Just roll up next to the coop, open one end and flush the birds from the other end into the safety of the coop – viola!
I have some designs rolling around in this head of mine and I’m sure my husband will voice his opinion too. Limiting the birds from some of their favorite areas near the house will be a relief. Thankfully, we have the long North Dakota winter to think about our tractor design and how best to accommodate the needs and desires of all involved.