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Lower Maintenance Chickens

>19 January 2012
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Here’s the problem I’ve been trying to figure out…

I want to free range my hens, because they can find all the organic food they need and it’ll save us a lot of money. Plus, they are pretty much maintenance free when all you have to do is let them out in the morning, and put them up in the evening.

But when they are loose, either the hawks or foxes pick them off, one at a time, like a lunch buffet. And, when the hens lay, it’s often off in the woods somewhere where we’ll never find the eggs.

Since we’ve lost so many hens to predators, we decided to put them in a large, caged run. But having them enclosed makes for a lot of work! You gotta keep bedding down in the run, ’cause they’ll dig up all the grass in a heartbeat. And you have to keep fresh water and food in supply, which costs time and money.

I’ve been pondering a way of making a self-watering system for the chicken run. I’d love to figure out a way of putting a gutter on the chicken coop, which brings water into a rain barrel of sorts, which then self waters a container in the run. Wouldn’t that be awesome? I have to make that one of my goals this year. I’d have to figure out a way of keeping it clean, though; off the ground a little, where they can’t walk all in it.

I’ve also been wanting to study up on how to create an environment for grub worms or maggots to hatch. If I can make a “maggot farm”, somehow attracting flies to hatch eggs on rotting materials within a controlled area, I’d have a way of supplying my chickens with lots of organic protein for free.

I know some people who put a light low to the floor in the chicken coop, with the purpose of attracting moths and such for the chickens to eat. But I’ve heard of too many coops catching on fire from lights like that, so I don’t think I’ll try it myself.

Last year, we put raised beds in the chicken run, to supplement their foraging. We covered the boxes with a chicken wire lid, and allowed grass to grow up in the boxes and through the wire tops. The chickens were able to peck the grass, without digging it all up. This ended up working out really well.

Anyways, just thought I’d share some of my ideas with you. One of these days I’m gonna perfect the art of owning chickens!

Do you have a creative way of caring for your caged hens?

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27 Comments »

  • Tammy said:

    Great topic! I did come across a plan for rain water collection, I believe it was into trash barrels. I’m not sure how, but I know it could be incorporated into watering animals. I love the idea about making the beds so the chickens can’t dig up the grass. I’m having a terrible time right now with freezing temps. I’d love to see some ideas on how to keep them in fresh water all year round. Thanks!

  • Wanda Stauffer said:

    I would love to see pictures of the raised beds you have in your run. We have been rotating our runs every 6-12 months but that is a pain too! I have been toying with the idea of sprouting bunches of wheat or other grain indoors and feeding the whole chunk to them at times like this when the run is bare….
    I saw that in an issue of Mary Janes Farm magazine.

  • Willamette Valley Homesteader said:

    I like your idea about the rain barrel system and have been thinking along the same line. Right now I use a chicken nipple attached to a soda bottle. it is awesome. No dirty water. I have been thinking how I could hybridize the two ideas to make a self-filling water system.

  • bw said:

    these guys do have some interesting ideas for watering chickens. http://avianaquamiser.com/

  • Daedre said:

    I’d love to find answers to these questions too. I built a run for my chickens, but they destroyed all the grass within a couple months. My city doesn’t allow them to free range either. If only I could figure out an inexpensive way to make a moveable chicken run that will connect with their static chicken coop.

  • Janise said:

    My parents keep over 50 chickens. They use and LOVE this waterer: http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com/automatic_water_bowls.html (Scroll down towards the bottom of the page for a description of how it works and even a video showing it in action.)My parents do not use the tripod, they just hang the bowl from the house through the roof of the coop. Since this connects to a regular water hose, I think you should, in theory, be able to connect the hose to this waterer on one end and a rain barrel on the other. In regards to predators, they are most active in the early morning and at night. My parents let their chickens out about 3 in the afternoon and then they come back to roost in the coop when it starts getting dark. With this timing, the chicken do most of their laying in the coop during the early part of the day and then they get to stretch and forage in the safest part of the day and are safe in the coop each night. Best of luck!

  • Jennifer said:

    We had a portable chicken-mobile that we used before we moved. It had a gutter on it that caught the rain water, the water was stored in a large plastic barrel inside the chicken house. From the barrel of water we had a small hose that ran out to a “Bell” waterer. This worked great for us and when we have more space again this is the system we will use again. (Here is a picture of one of them. :) http://www.chickentractors.net/2009/03/automatic-watering-system-for-chicken.html )

  • Joey said:

    Have you thought of using a chicken tractor? If you have fencing already (for your chicken run), I would imagine that you could get some scrap wood and build one yourself. I’ve seen lots of plans online for different homemade chicken tractors.

    Right now we let our chickens & ducks free range (from early afternoon until dark). Unfortunately, we’re looking for other options, too, as we have lost a few birds this fall/winter.

  • Emily said:

    We are getting our first chickens in a month, so I don’t really have any advice, but I would recommend that you check out the book The Small Scale Chicken Flock by Harvey Ussery. It is an amazing book and gives lots of ideas on how you can free-range your birds, use worms and grubs for feed, etc. I was so inspired after reading it and I can’t wait to get going!

  • Becky said:

    What about a worm farm? The castings are great for the garden, I believe by way of compost tea. I wonder if they’d reproduce enough to be self-sustaining if you fed them to the chickens routinely.

  • Tasha said:

    I *think* I read in a magazine somewhere that someone set up a mobile run for the same reasons you named. They just moved it around their pasture/land so the chickens could be “free-range” without getting eaten. I couldn’t tell you now the ins and outs of how to do it, but it’s an idea.
    I also read once that a lady let her chickens out every morning into her gardens. The chickens ate the bugs and pooed, giving free fertilizer!

  • shirley said:

    after you collect the water i have seen a system where they have a float valve in the bowel that the chickens are drinking out of so it will refill it selft everytime the water level goes down. Sort of like in your toliet. I got it from the back yard food procution system with Marjory Wildcraft. I actually bought her dvd and man did it show you things loved it and she talked about chicken tractors and using the flow valve to water her chickens.

  • Dolly said:

    We keep our birds closed up until 10or 11. then they have finished laying. For water my hubby made a spigot on the bottom of a rain barrel using PVC. Then we set it to a slow drip to fill up a flat bottom bowl . It was made by sawing a old bucket down. We set a clean brick inside so they wont turn it over and so that can stand on it to drink. The “bowl” is on top of a old stepping stone. We keep the barrel full so thay always have water even when its not raining. We rarely feed much except winter and then we usally give them corn, scratch and kitchen scraps. We have a compost pile that they love to scratch! But they also scratch behind the goats too.

  • Kendra at New Life On A Homestead (author) said:

    Wanda,

    I took the beds out for the winter, since they were empty. I’ll have to look and see if I took any pictures of them while they were in there :)

  • Austin said:

    You should post pics of the run.

  • Kendra at New Life On A Homestead (author) said:

    Yeah, I’ll try to post pics soon :)

  • Elle Mental said:

    I don’t know if you have seen this online magazine, but I have found it very useful: http://www.backwoodshome.com Their “Ask Jackie” column has all kinds of good ideas in it. Maybe you can find some ideas there that you haven’t thought of.

  • Kendra at New Life On A Homestead (author) said:

    Thanks, Elle! I LOVE Jackie Clay. (I have her canning book :) ) It’s been a while since I’ve browsed her articles though, maybe I should see what she has to say about chickens. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Gina DeBruler said:

    How about a chicken tractor? I read that you move it once or twice a day. That would allow them to feed from the ground, still keep them confined and protected, and eliminate the need to provide flooring for them. Just a thought.

  • Kendra at New Life On A Homestead (author) said:

    Yeah, a chicken tractor would work for a few hens, but not a very large flock :(

  • Daphne Macie said:

    Our 6 chickens lived in a chicken tractor for one whole summer until we were able to fix up a chicken coop and run for them. You are welcome to visit my blog see how accommodating our chicken tractor was. It worked out quite nice during the warmer months but the winter in northern N.Y. state are cold and bitter so we worked hard at getting them better living quarters that would be more accommodating. We are storing the chicken run in case we decide to get any more chicks but would put 1/2 inch hardware cloth over the existing chicken wire to predator proof it better. Check out my page Chickens x 6 and my link Chicken Family on my blog.

  • Jaci said:

    Ive heard of people having their compost close to or in the chickens run so they turn it for u and get to eat the bugs…we plan on building a mobile coop for free ranging and poop control factors…ive seen where people section off their yard with the coop kinda in the center and rotated the chicken btwn 4 zones …hth

  • Anonymous said:

    I know you posted this a year or so ago, but have you heard of maggot buckets? You poke holes around the bottom of a bucket, put meat in there, the flys lay their eggs on the meat and then the maggots crawl out of the holes and get eaten by the chickens. Just go a google search and you’ll find out loads about them. I’ve not tried it yet, but it sounds like a good supplimental feeding source for your chicks.

  • Kendra at New Life On A Homestead (author) said:

    I have heard of a maggot bucket, but I didn’t know what you would call it or how it worked exactly. THANKS for this!! I would like to try something like this for the hens :)

  • Jaci said:

    Also on the watered front my husband rigged up a 5 gallon bucket to hosing and the put chicken nipples in some PVC Pip to make a watered….he catches rain water in the bucket from the roof of the coop…from what ive read about maggots I decided not to try them but I order meal worms from uncle Jim’s (5.95/500 using a coupon) and we will be raising mealworms for our gals!

  • Miranda said:

    I can’t actually read your comments on your post here – they all look like empty boxes to me. But, after seeing your post about wanting to make the chickens more maintenance free – I’ve been reading about using black soldier fly larva to compost/recycle, and the grubs easy to collect and use for chickens. You might check that out!

  • Tolkienchick said:

    We’re first-time chicken owners this year, and it’s really been interesting! In a suburb with a small flock, it’s amazing how much chickens can shake up your life. Anyway, my dad built a chicken tractor like a couple commenters were mentioning. It’s a PVC frame, sloping sides meeting at the top, with chicken wire walls and tie wraps. You also have to cover the sharp points of the wire with duct tape or whatever you prefer. I move it around the yard to a different spot each day. It works for us, because our yard is fenced in and I’m afraid the chickens will fly over or get out…I don’t know if they do that…I wish I could be sure how high they’ll fly. But we also have hawks, and I wouldn’t leave my chickens out in the yard unsupervised. I was glad to read in another comment that the tractor system worked and the hens laid in the early morning hours, since I was wondering, “There aren’t any nesting boxes in the tractor! Where are they going to lay eggs during the day?”

    Thank you for your blog! I love how many gardening posts there are! It’s an amazing resource, and entertaining to read!

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