Summer camp for soil-building hens
Chickens do a fantastic job of building soil quickly with little labor input on the part of their humans. They constantly scratch, peck, and poop, turning raw organic matter into excellent soil in a short period of time. While mobile chicken pens, or “tractors,” work well for certain applications, to establish high quality planting areas quickly I recommend the Camp Chickapoo model: a semi-stationary pen and run combo.
Excited to try chicken tractors on the farm, my son and I built one with the intention of moving it daily to improve soil and establish planting areas, while simultaneously providing the hens with the excitement and nutrition of fresh ground. We used a plan for a typical 4' by 8' chicken tractor from a YouTuber who explained each step fully, and provided a handy material list. While I was very happy with the outcome of the build, I learned several lessons once the tractor was in use.
It was recommended that 8 to 10 hens could be comfortably housed in a pen of this size as long as it was moved daily. Once the tractors were in action, I judged this number to be too high. Though the tractors were moved on healthy turf with a wide variety of grass and forbs, the hens quickly became bored and paced the perimeter of the pen, eyeing the ground just out of reach. It was obvious they weren't happy, so I began moving them twice a day. This added to my workload but didn't remedy the problem.
I decided to modify the system to give the hens access to more ground and allow them greater freedom to exercise their chicken instincts. Two rolls of 4' by 100' non-climb horse fence and a few dozen sucker rods did the trick: the fencing was placed in a rough circle with the tractor inside, and rods were woven through about every 15 feet and pounded into the ground. The fence rolls were joined at one seam, and a gate placed at the other.
The result is a generous area for scratching, foraging, and aimless wandering. The chickens are released into the enclosure each morning and return to the tractor each night. No daily moving is required, but the whole set up can be moved to fresh ground when necessary. Hens spend the warm season at Camp Chickapoo creating the perfect planting spot, and live in their snug room in the barn for the winter months.
Similar designs use electrified poultry netting which, along with the tractor, is moved on a regular basis. Numerous encounters with electric fences when I was a child turned me against the stuff. Adult me reasons against the electrified option due to the greater initial outlay, the maintenance required to keep weeds down, and the difference in life expectancy of electric versus horse fence. The rigid metal fencing used in the Camp Chickapoo model will last indefinitely and has numerous other applications should I decide to dismantle the Camp. I don't like gadgetry or reliance on technology and through experience I've developed resistance to the enthusiastic endorsements of those who do. I acknowledge that extreme predator pressure might make electric the best option in some cases.
The Camp’s design is perfect for those with lots of manure to process. During the warm months when the chickens inhabit Camp Chickapoo, most of the manure from stall clean-outs is dumped over the fence for them. Leaves, wood chips, grass clippings, garden veggies past their prime, and weeds are also tossed in. The chickens do most of the the work: I make a couple trips a day to open and close the pen, check feed and water, and collect eggs.
Though I'd already witnessed chicken's capacity for scratching, I was impressed by the speed at which the hens tore through the raw organic matter. The system works best with large amounts of manure are added often, but the usefulness of weeds should not be underestimated for those with large, overgrown gardens like mine. Straw and waste hay are also invaluable if you have a free or low-cost source. If you don't have lots of material to add, this method will be difficult as the hens will quickly create a bare and overly nitrogenous moonscape.
Access to shade and cover are extremely important, since the chickens spend the hottest months at Camp Chickapoo. A large hazelnut shrub and an apple tree are inside the Camp. A fast growing banana plant has proven very popular among the hens for a dust bath area. It is cut down in fall, but quickly grows large enough to provide extensive shade by the time the hot weather comes on in summer.
The Camp currently occupies a chunk of the orchard on slightly sloping land with heavy clay soil. Most of the apple trees planted here 20 years ago are moderately healthy and produce in good years, but would have benefited greatly from the preparation the hens are providing. I've added two fruit trees inside the camp and expect great things from them. I plan to keep the Camp in the orchard, moving it here and there to improve soil around existing trees mainly, but the set up would be perfect for establishing vegetable gardens. For those not wanting or unable to move this set up, two permanent camps could be established with chickens and a veggie plot alternating between them each year. There are no doubt countless ways the system could be modified to fit individual needs. For creative folk, the possibilities are legion.
Sounds great. We used a similar approach with exactly this sort of fencing, to create some of this year's garden space, after moving a few years of horse manure off the area--no chickens but similar approach to temporary fencing. The horrendous heat this summer played havoc with our gardening however, here in SW Idaho.