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The Post-Agricultural Chicken Condo
Sunday, December 14, 2008
We're working on several new projects in anticipation of a busy spring in 2009; chicken pens, small field coops, and a new livestock and equipment barn.
This week we completed a new row of breeding pens for our chickens; nine new pens in all.  Each pen holds just a few birds, between three to six depending on the size of the birds occupying the pens.  The pens allow the birds plenty of room to move around, and each pen has a waterer, feeder, and nest box.  It's important to keep the birds in small breeding groups so we can track the pedigree of our flocks and select for desireable characteristics in our breeders.
Building the pens required quite a bit of effort and materials.  Predators are a real concern in our area, and chickens are prime targets.  Coyotes, raccoons, owls, hawks, and the random feral cat are often seen on the farm or in the area.  So, we had to develop a pen that is predator resistant.  By using a continuous concrete footer as the base of the pen, we've never lost a penned bird to a predator.  The footer is poured almost a foot underground and rises a foot above grade.  This linear concrete pad also forms a strong base for the vertical elements of the pen.  We've refined the design over time and are confident of its durability.  Unfortunately, utility comes at a price:  These pens are expensive to build but worth it over the long run.  (And, in this case, the run is long, indeed.)
Our field coops are smaller but in their own way even more elaborate than the breeding pens.  We have two coops that are located in pastures on the west end of the farm.  Pineywoods cattle and Gulf Coast native sheep are rotated through the pastures.
The sheep leave small pelleted manure that promotes rapid plant growth in the pasture.  These pellets fall through the grass blades and nestle on the ground near the root system of the plants.  They soon break down and become excellent fertilizer for the pasture.
But the cow patties...well, let's just say they're not like sheep manure.  If sheep manure is Rhode Island, cow patties would be Texas.  Each pile of cow manure is as large as a dinner plate --a big dinner plate-- and can actually kill the underlying grass by blocking out air and sunshine and overheating the tender plants during the process of decomposition.  But, thankfully nature provides a remedy in the form of free-range chickens.
The chickens that overnight in the coops will, during the day, be busy scratching apart the cow patties in search of fly larva and undigested grain.  These industrious  birds completely obliterate the cow patties with their obsessive scratching, sparing the otherwise smothered grass and fertilizing large areas of the pasture.  They are like feathered versions of Tom Sawyer's fence-painting friends, seeming to find even the most tedious work highly fulfilling.
To keep these helpful birds safe at night we are installing predator-proof automatic doors on the chicken coops.  (For reasons that now elude me, the architectural vibe we went for on the overall structure was 'post-modern poultry.')  As evening approaches, the birds return to the coop that they recognize is a source of security, food, and water.  Once they're safely roosting in the coop, a photoelectric eye senses when night falls and triggers a switch that automatically shuts the door of the coop.  It's sort of like raising the drawbridge to the moated castle.  The birds are then safely locked in for the night, and the next morning when the sun rises, the door will automatically open and the birds will launch themselves from the coop, eager to begin a new day of foraging.
Here's a video showing some young marans and the field coop (go the lower right hand corner of the frame and choose the HD format option):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iq-Iz92X1V0
The field coop has worked reasonably well except for a few roosters who violated curfew and decided to bunk down outside.  The local coyote pack paid a visit.  Below is a night shot of the coop in lock-down mode, the metal red door creating an effective barrier against visitors long in tooth and claw.