Free-range chickens with mobile roost / coops

Discussion in 'Managing Your Flock' started by centrarchid, Sep 27, 2011.

  1. centrarchid

    centrarchid Chicken Obsessed

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    I am looking for folks with free-range chickens that return to roost or coop that is mobile.
     
  2. WoodlandWoman

    WoodlandWoman Overrun With Chickens

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    I've done that, without a problem. I usually don't move it more than a few feet, just to put it on fresh grass/pasture. It's been moved farther, though. Maybe halfway across an acre? The actual fenced space is a couple of acres, but I don't think it's ever gone from one end to the other.

    We normally move it daily.

    Did you have any particular questions?
     
  3. centrarchid

    centrarchid Chicken Obsessed

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    Quote:We are looking into setting up a research project with free range birds, most likely laying hens, where pasture plant species composition and forage pressure is to be managed. Goal is decrease feed cost by increasing forage quality and quantity. One of the objectives is to have operation so 200 to 500 birds can be anchored to a single mobile roost / coop. Problem evident is birds not dispersing enough from feeders and we do not know how to decide when to move roost to shift foraging pressure as needed. Dog(s) will be used as guardians.

    I am trying to find parties either with experience or interest in free-range production that can give insight into some of problems or ideas that can be explored to improve effeciency.

    Co-grazing with ruminants may also be explored.
     
  4. WoodlandWoman

    WoodlandWoman Overrun With Chickens

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    That's a lot of chickens.

    I've never brooded more than 50 chickens at a time. I've only raised smaller numbers of chickens in a tractor, as a grow-out pen. When they were large enough, they started free ranging.

    For larger numbers of chickens, I've always used stationary housing. They've usually free ranged over 3-4 acres, with the housing fairly close to the middle of the acreage. The acreage has been sectioned off into multiple pastures or foraging areas. If there's good forage available, mine are enthusiastic about getting out there to eat it, even though I free feed their layer food. These days, I also have water available away from the coop in warm weather, so they don't have to go all the way back to the coop to drink, if they don't want to.

    They've covered as much as 5-6 acres when pastured with sheep. They would follow the sheep as the sheep moved to various grazing and browsing areas. The sheep had a stationary housing, feed and water area. In the morning, the sheep would move out through whatever gates we had open, depending on where we wanted them to go. At night the sheep would come back home. I opened a chicken sized gate to let the chickens into the sheep area in the morning. The chickens liked hanging out with them and seemed to feel safer, as they were bolder about exploring new areas. Wide open spaces put chickens at risk of attack and that's something they tend to be cautious about in a new area. The chickens would come back to lay eggs in the coop as needed and then go out to forage again.

    My chickens like to forage when there is forage available. If all a commercial operation is offering is dirt, then they don't have a lot of motivation to leave the feeders. What's the point? Foraging is also a learned skill. Young chickens aren't as good at it as older chickens that have had time to learn. They have to learn what is safe to eat, what is good to eat and where it's safe to wander.

    Flock raised chickens are taught quickly, while artificially raised chicks need to learn by trial and error or by watching a bolder peer, what to eat and where to go. I walk young chickens to new areas, to help them learn to forage there. They're also happy to follow other animals that they trust, like livestock they know or some of my pets. If they're mainly going to just eat some grass, legume leaves and a few bugs, that doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out. For acreage that has more extensive plantings, along with fruits, herbs, etc., that can take a little longer to figure out.

    Although there may be plantings close to the housing they can eat, they'll go much farther out to work areas for insects.

    Having the chickens hanging around sheep in the pasture kept them from being attacked by hawks in our experience. Although I had one dog in particular that was very good at guarding against hawk attacks, not all dogs are as good at preventing aerial attacks as they are at preventing ground attacks. I think it just depends on the dog.

    I think the biggest issue you'll have is degradation of the pasture right around the housing. That's an issue just from them going in and out of the housing, even if they're foraging farther away from the housing. On their own, it usually takes them a little time to get enough confidence to range farther away from the housing, especially in a pasture with no cover for them.

    There are a lot of variables on how often you need to move housing. You may find that even if you get a lot of information ahead of time, in the end, you just need to monitor the pastures and see what kind of condition they're in.
     
  5. centrarchid

    centrarchid Chicken Obsessed

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    We could set aside 40 to 50 acres for project, expecially is ruminants tolerated by design.

    I would like to run 6 flocks of 50 birds each in first year. At least a couple in each flock would be tracked with GPS units strapped to their backs. Each flock would be in its own managed pasture with a dog. Considering pasture size of 5 acres for each flock. In second year larger pastures will be used to see what affects distance birds range from mobile.

    At some point a larger flock will be used to test modification of remote roost intended to increase density (number) of birds that will use unit without roosting in undesired locations. Also want to play around with design to see what we can get away with and yet have it being mobile on uneven ground. We are thinking sled so eggs can be harvested and birds accessed while standing flat footed in ground.

    I did a short-term experiment last summer and found breed and weather both influenced ranging habits; as can what is in feeder, not just amounts.

    We would like to explore moving roost to spread out “fecal footprint” and reduce trampling / overgrazing near mobile roost.

    I was toying with idea of having mixed into about half of flocks a few old birds or birds of wide ranging breed to promote ranging away from roost.

    Something I noticed with my free ranging flocks when forage quality is high and abundant is that birds stay in tight formation and move about as a group while when forage becomes exhausted the birds spread out. The former arrangement seems better when dealing with avian predators. Critics indicate hawks will be problem whether dog used or not. With my free ranging flock which includes roosters, brush for cover and bird dog as as LGD; hawks have caused zero losses this year. Brushy cover not something we want to touch right now as it is too new a concept for many farmers to consider. Dog in use readily pursues low flying Coopers hawk and watches anything that riles up birds. Major problem is no one associated with free range poultry thinks bird dogs are suitable. GP's and GP crosses we have now do not seem to range far enough when it gets hot. I do not know if they (GP's) will respond like my bird dog and run to squalling chicken even when it is out of site. Whatever dog is to be used, all must be of same breeding and probably same age to minimize variation in dogs.


    We have considered use of fencing for intensive rotational grazing. We cannot do everything, since only 3 years and a limited budget.

    If project worked well enough, then it could be extended and expanded.
     
    Last edited: Sep 27, 2011
  6. capayvalleychick

    capayvalleychick Chillin' With My Peeps

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    You already know that I use a mobile coop, but the most chickens I've had is about 50. Here's the coop:

    [​IMG]

    I rotationally graze with livestock. Horses will chew the coop, cattle will break it, so we move the coop behind the cattle & sheep. That way, the chickens break up and spread the fresh manure. The coop has to be moved at least once a week or the grass underneath will die, due to shade and heavy use by chickens needing the shade. I've only had one loss of a pullet to a hawk, even though there are hawks living close by. I stopped using the netting after a steer got tangled in it. Now I just use electric rope. I feed about a handful of high protein feed per bird, per day.

    A neighboring organic farm that sells eggs has less fancy versions of these trailers- lots of them- and hundreds of chickens that go in his fields after harvest of veggies. He still free feeds organic layer feed in large quantities.

    Not sure if this is any help to you.

    Kim
     
  7. jamband

    jamband Chillin' With My Peeps

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    what exactly are you looking for? i mean 500 birds on 50 acres is not alot at all if its well managed and especially if you are grazing other animals? Have you read any of Joel Salatins books? or this article is good too http://www.richsoil.com/raising-chickens.jsp
     
  8. centrarchid

    centrarchid Chicken Obsessed

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    Kim,

    Thanks a lot.




    Quote:We want have enough area so birds range is self limited rather than imposed by confinement. One of our key interests is in promoting movement away from mobile roost / henhouse. More acreage needed to enable birds to do the limiting. Some acreage also to be set aside for comparison, plant and insect abundance in areas with and without poultry foraging pressure. And we want to have flock spacing to controll intermingling while foraging and drift between mobile units.

    I have read Salatins works. Trying to improve upon knowledge about plant forage to further offset feed requirements.
     
  9. jamband

    jamband Chillin' With My Peeps

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    there is so good discussion on chicken forage on permies.com forum

    I really like what you are doing but the main question would be are any of thoose things really going to encourage roaming from the coop? or will it just take time and them feeling safe to induce wandering? are you oppossed to moving coop often? I would think that moving the coop to fresh forage would be an easier way to control it. Just seems like wanting them to wander far but not too far could be a tough control......I really like the idea and will be interested to see what happens for you.
     
  10. capayvalleychick

    capayvalleychick Chillin' With My Peeps

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    I noticed, with my group, that certain breeds tend to roam farther and then the entire flock will end up following. An especially tasty forage will entice them to go farther than usual.

    Before I added the Delawares, the flock always stayed in the grass/clover/legume pastures or sometimes went into the drylot areas to scratch through manure. Last winter, after olive harvest, the Delawares started heading for the olive hedgerow grove. They cleaned up all the remaining fruit on the ground, (which helps to prevent olive fruit fly infestation). Unfortunately, after that, they decided to wander over to my neighbor's freshly planted grain field. I had to cover 1500 feet of barb wire fence with netting to keep them on our side of the fence. We have 20 acres but it is only 400 feet wide.

    The Delawares will range farther than 400 ft from the coop, if there is something good to eat there. The Dorkings, Buckeyes & mixed breed chickens usually stayed within about 200 feet of the coop, but now will follow the Delawares to find better feed.

    My dog breed of choice for the ranch are English Shepherds. They don't stay with the livestock & poultry all the time but do patrol the property perimeter and keep an eye on everything that goes on, all the time. They can (and need to) be taught which animals to protect and which to chase off or kill. I have had very few losses to predators, yet many people in my area can't keep chickens due to predators. ES can herd, hunt and guard, and need human companionship, so will often be right at your side or feet when there is no work to do.

    Kim
     

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