Last year was my first year raising meat birds (or any sort of birds, for that matter). One usually does this in the warm months of summer, but I kinda sorta forgot to order the birds and before I knew it, summer was practically over. I got so spoiled having a freezer full of chicken this past year I just couldn’t let it go. So I ordered meat birds in September, and they will be here until November. I ordered 50 birds in two batches staggered by two weeks as I don’t have enough room in my brooder for 50 chicks, nor do I have enough poultry cages to transport them to the processor. This way the first batch is just ready to move outside when the second batch arrives. Last summer I did the two batches separately, so it will be interesting to see how much mess 50 chickens can make!
My brooder was made from bits of scraps. I have learned how great it is to have such scraps around: you never know when you are going to need to build something. To build the brooder I used some plywood, 2×2’s and scraps of laminate flooring to make a deep box. It’s not really ideal: the wood absorbs stuff and is hard to get truly clean, and if you try to pick it up it wobbles, but it works. One day I hope to have a barn and then I can use a stall for brooding chicks.
Last year I built a chicken tractor: a floor-less coop that gets dragged around the yard so the chickens can have fresh air and access to grass and bugs. Mine was 5×10 feet and two feet tall, covered with chicken wire and a hatch on the top for access inside. At first it worked well, but to be honest those birds are so messy that for the last couple of weeks it could have been moved more than once a day – the birds were often sitting on some pretty dirty ground. But moving it was hard – it is heavy! Plus the birds could just sit in one spot and pick the grass around themselves, so it wasn’t conducive to exercise. The concentration of poop smelled pretty bad, too, even if it did end up fertilizing the field. All in all I felt I could do better by my birds, so this year I wanted to do something different.
The idea I came up with is based on a “chicken moat”, which is a narrow run that goes around your garden. The idea is the chickens eat whatever nasty bugs might try to make their way into your garden, you can easily drop scraps of veggies into their run, and the narrow width prevents raptors from swooping down and stealing your birds. My garden was rather neglected this year but it is a fenced area of about 35×40 feet. I decided to put the coop inside the garden and then make a sort of maze of fencing such that there are no wide open spaces for raptors to land in, and the chickens are encouraged to keep moving to fresh grass and bugs so they end up getting exercise. I came up with a cool design that broke the garden down into quadrants such that I could rotate them to a new section every week or so while having their coop be central and not need to be moved.
I needed the coop to be as cheap as possible, and temporary too as the birds are only outside for six weeks before they are ready for processing. I realized that, given they will be heading into cooler weather soon, they needed to be off the ground. Apparently cold chickens don’t gain weight as well. So I used some plywood from the pig shelter Hubby built last year (which the pigs never ended up using as they preferred the forest) and lay it down on some old fence posts we’d scrounged from a neighbour last year. I held the boards together by screwing down scraps of laminate flooring over the seams. Around the perimeter of the floor I laid straw bales and on top of that wall (one bale high) I put my chicken tractor. I draped a large tarp over the whole thing for waterproofing, and there is a heat lamp inside to keep the birds warm on those cold autumn nights. I lay down a thick bedding of straw and so far I’m just adding fresh straw when it gets dirty, sort of like the deep bedding method. In the end I’ll have some great stuff for my compost pile.
The first batch of chicks have moved in and they seem pretty happy with their new digs. They are running around, scratching, dust-bathing, exploring, and just generally looking like real chickens. I am really, really pleased with this setup and it is definitely how I’m going to raise my meaties from now on. It will be interesting to see what happens when the new batch moves out there – I hope they don’t fight. And I’ll probably have to add more fencing to increase their run area, but that’s pretty easy using the plastic posts we have from our electric fence kit and bits of plastic mesh fencing.
I’ve also discovered something unexpected: I’m really enjoying these birds! I often go outside just to sit in the sun and watch them. I’ve decided I definitely want to get some “real” chickens (laying hens). Before that happens, however, I’ll need to make a better coop. This one is really inefficient: to get inside I have to pull back the tarp, lift the (broken) hatch (while getting caught up on bits of nails and wire ends), climb inside…it’s a royal pain in the neck. Meanwhile, the next big test will be when the other batch of chicks moves outside to join them. We’ll see how big a mess 50 meat birds can make!