Plants vs. Chickens


So it turns out keeping 50 roosters in a 10' x 12' rolling pen was no big deal. I thought they'd have torn each other apart by week two, but I was wrong. I thought maybe they'd find the thing a little cramped, but I was wrong about that too. I'm no chicken psychologist, but they seemed pretty content just eating and sitting, then maybe wobbling around a bit and eating some more.

Here's where they lived (not on our driveway, of course). It's called a “Chicken Tractor.”

 

 Chicken Tractor

Chicken Tractor

That's what it's called. I didn't design it, I just built a version of it. And yes I think that name is misleading.

it's just an open air pen on wheels. Throwing the word “tractor” in makes people think there's some diesel-belching machine dragging it across a field. And pairing it with “Chicken” makes it even more confusing. Are chickens driving a tractor? Is it a tractor powered by chickens? Is it a tractor used to harvest chickens? Now I'm confused, and I've been using the thing all summer.

It couldn't be more simple. There's an open patch and a covered patch. The chickens grazed and pooped all day, then in the evening we moved it by hooking a dolly under the front and pulling it forward one length. It only took a couple moves for the chickens to get what was happening. Then they'd scurry forward with the pen in anticipation of more food.

They had fresh grass, fresh air, and fresh water. Anna also brought them troughs of feed throughout the day as they needed it. And by moving them constantly it kept their poop from toxifying their lungs and burning holes in the ground. They ended up producing the perfect amount of fertilizer. Just look what it did to the grass:

  Chicken Poo.  Mother Nature's Magic Marker.

Chicken Poo.  Mother Nature's Magic Marker.

 

So yeah, the rolling coop works. Any worries I had came from my misconception that layers and broilers were interchangeable. Not so. Comparing layers to broilers is like comparing wolves to pugs.

Every morning our layers erupt from their coop and bolt across the yard with the same degree of focus seen in the main party from The Lord of the Rings. Our broilers, on the other hand, looked like a bunch of guys who've spent way too much time watching The Lord of the Rings.

Our layers are heritage breeds. They're pretty much one tick down from wild grouse. (Don't quote me on that. I'm just basing this on aesthetics and my own backyard observations).

Broilers (Cornish Crosses) are the world's most popular industrial chicken breed. They grow big fast. Really, really astonishingly fast. It's kind of like when your kid gets one of those hatching dinosaur eggs you have to soak in a bowl of water. A couple days later you're making breakfast and you notice there's a sponge triceratops flopped out onto the counter beside the coffee maker.

Every morning gave us a silent “whoa, wait...what?” moment when we went to feed them. We didn't take progress photos with these birds like we did with our layers. We didn't have to. You could pretty much watch them grow hour by hour.

Reading up on them I came across someone who called Cornish Crosses “feathered piggies.” That's a little gross, but not totally inaccurate.

A few times after feeding them I'd crouch beside their pen and watch them eat. They were ravenous. They'd gorge themselves, then waddle over a couple inches and plunk down in the grass. There was no rooster vs. rooster aggression like with our layers. They all had the same calm, glassy blue/green eyes. Their feathers never fully arrived. And each of them had shockingly warm, pink underbellies and gigantic feet.

Actually, their warmth was the most disturbing thing about them. You could feel their body heat through your work gloves. It was weird. You could actually feel their metabolism working, feel them converting feed to mass and heat. It was like they were already pre-warmed, just waiting for that last bit of work it would take to turn them into a meal.

It was all really...easy? I'm hesitant to say it was totally easy. Because it definitely wasn't hassle free.

Here's a ridiculous moment:

About a month in we lost a few birds to a big storm. Of course it rolled in while my parents were over for lunch. One moment we were all enjoying ourselves around the dinner table, the next we were stuck under a typhoon. 

Water was just pouring off the roof and pooling around the house. I had to run around in a lightning storm like an idiot with a rake over my head, madly trying to scrape our eaves troughs clear from the ground (because we have no ladder).

My folks watched from the window, holding their grandchildren. At this point I'm pretty sure they're just happy I've lived long enough to procreate.

So I got that cleared, but then the downspouts started gushing like a fire hose. I looked over and saw the chicken tractor in a low spot in yard.  Now the birds were in a panic, all drowning in one massive puddle. I stuck my head into the house and shouted for Anna to come help me save them.

She jumped into her rubber boots and ran out there with me. The rain was coming down in sheets, it's fully cracking lightning over our heads, and the first thing I do is grab the shelter from where I shouldn't and immediately slice open my thumb.

Now I'm dripping blood, there's water and blood just running down my hands, and I've thrown open the top hatch of the chicken tractor so I can pull out the feed trays so we can move the thing, and one of the chickens manages to escape.

I grabbed him as he skittered across the roof of the pen, (he wasn't hard to catch – they were all pretty plump by now), but then as I dropped him back in I noticed my thumb had been pumping blood all over him. 

What happened next kind of played out in slow motion: A fat white bird covered in blood, tumbling down into a cage of hungry wet chickens, this one anointed creature looking up at me accusingly, then disappearing beneath a flurry of feathers and wings.

I dove back in.

“There's a bird covered in blood!” I shouted.

“Why are you sucking your thumb!” Anna yelled.

“My thumb's bleeding!” I yelled, popping back up.

“Your thumb's covered in chicken poo!”

“Fuck!”

I popped my thumb of of my mouth.  She was right. I was covered in a lot of chicken poo at that moment. I'd been crawling around inside the cage getting the trays.

“We're making bad decisions!” my wife shouted at me amid bolts of lightning.

“You're right!” I yelled/agreed. We closed the hatch and ran back to the house.

We lost a bird that day. But neither of us got hit by lightning or contracted histoplasmosis, so I'm going to call that a victory.

However, our slaughter tally was less than stellar. We ended up with 40 birds from our initial 50. That's a pretty poor margin. I hate to admit this, but hey guess what? We're newbies.

So we made some mistakes. 

Every bird down was a blow to our confidence as well as our pride. I think we lost two as chicks in the brooder, that's normal. A couple were rolled over by the pen as we moved it (everybody does that once. There's two of us, so we did that twice). 

But then we lost a few more to bad weather and poor tractor placement (See above. Initially I tucked the pen up against the treeline thinking it would help shelter them from the wind. But it was in a low spot where water pooled easily. After that lightning storm/puddle mishap we moved it to a field where it was high and dry. All good after that).  

Anna put in tons of time in everyday. She made sure they had enough feed, enough water. Cleaned out their trays, carried buckets back and forth.  Cared for them.  Occasionally I'd top them up when I got home or move their pen.  Really this one was all her.

But still, by the calendar these birds only took eight weeks to grow. Now let's take a look at our tomatoes.

When there was still snow on the ground I had to build a light station and a rack in the basement so we could get a head start. Then we nurtured our sprouts for four weeks. Don't touch the little hairs! Adjust the lights, split them up a bit, make sure they're not crowding each other, then shift the lights again. Stop touching them so much! (How am I supposed to move them without touching them!)

Then after May Long we put them in the raised bed garden. Also – a raised bed garden had to be built.  Soil was brought in.  Our wheelbarrow broke.  At that point a normal family would have paused to find a working wheelbarrow.  For some reason we figured we'd just finish hauling the dirt using a toboggan and a discarded novelty chariot. 

  Note: normal family not pictured

Note: normal family not pictured

That worked until the toboggan burned out and the chariot busted.  So we finished it gulag style, running dirt out in a chain of Home Depot buckets.

Then once they were in we thought, crap!...did we plant them too early? We had a pretty cold night...are they all dead? They're looking a little yellow. Yep, they're definitely all dead. Nope – now they're coming back. But there's actual nubs of tomato now, so we need a deer-proof fence to protect them. So I pull up some old fencing from the field and we wrap the beds in a metal grid. But then they cling to that and flop right off the side of it. So now we have to poke them back and tie them off. Meanwhile...are they getting enough water? Too much? How are they coming along? I think they're almost ready to pick. Why are you picking one now?! Leave my tomatoes alone!

OK, you get it. Here's the point: It's now six months since we first starting dealing with tomatoes. And it's just paying off. But these birds? We bought them in a cardboard box, I built a thing out of 2x4s and wire for them to live in, and they pretty much grew themselves in eight weeks. And now we have meat for the winter.

Both are important.

All I'm saying is, if you ever see the zombie apocalypse looming at you on the horizon...chickens first and salsa later. 

Don't worry. These birds will take care of themselves. Just get busy welding that protection cage onto your Subaru.