Getting Started with Chickens – Free (Limited) Range

Poultry in general and chickens in particular are an almost obvious part of peasant life in Romania. We got started with chicken from day one – I think they were settled in before we were. I wasn’t too excited about having to take care of a flock from day one since we could barely take care of ourselves … however Andreea and her aunt had a different opinion on the matter 🙂 In retrospect I’m still not sure I would have started out the way we did however it did give us an opportunity (still ongoing) to learn about them, their needs and behaviors and to make better decisions about how we want to integrate them into our lives.

I have witnessed two typical approaches to poultry-keeping here in Romania. One is to keep them in crowded and dirty enclosures with very basic, unsanitary and unpleasant improvised coops. In this configuration they are completely dependent on people for food (mostly corn) and water. The other is free ranging in a fixed and limited range. The same space is used year after year with little opportunity to regenerate … so again the chickens depend on people for food and water. Completely free ranging is an option I have witnessed but rarely because there are (at least in our area) predators who are a threat to a free-ranging flock.

Neither of the common approaches were particularly appealing to us so we went off to find better answers. However to find better answers we first had to find better questions. Ours is becoming a recurring template question that goes something like “How can we provide the chickens with the freedom to move towards a lifestyle that is best suited for their needs with as little inputs of labor, time, attention and resources required of us?“.

We did a lot of reading and came across lots of information. The main motive that shimmered for us was to think beyond “taking care of chickens” and be open to “letting the chickens take care of us”. That second part has some obvious and some not so ovious aspects. The obvious is that chickens provide food in the form of eggs and meat. However the not so obvious has so much more to offer: chicken manure enriches soil nutriets, chickens are part of a food chain that provides natural pest control, chicken scratching can be a natural way to till soil, chickens can accelerate composting and produce substantial amounts of fertilizer … and there’s more.

Finally we came across a beautiful man named Harvey Ussery:

He has a rich and captivating website and wrote a fantastic book. You know the saying “if you get just one book about <topic of your choice> then get <book name>”. Well we have just one book about chickens and poultry and its Harvey’s book “The Small-Scale Poultry Flock: An All-Natural Approach to Raising Chickens and Other Fowl for Home and Market Growers“.

We have two views regarding chickens:

  1. Current View: Free ranging chickens on parcels of land to cut down weed growth and till soil in preparation for new plantings (for diverse needs including pasture, forest gardens, raised beds).
  2. Future View: Free ranging chickens on a suitable pasture that will provide everything the chickens need for most of the year (spring – fall).

Current View

We have 9 hectares of land that need to be rejuvenated. Some of it has been resting for the last few years but all of it has been somewhat abused for many years. It’s a huge task and we have a far-reaching view for it. One of the tools we want to try is working with chickens to clear patches of land and prepare them for replanting. We chose to do this using a combination of a mobile shelter and electric netting. We built a mobile shelter as outlined (though a bit smaller then) in Harvey’s book.

These are a few photos during the construction of the mobile shelter:

… and these are a few photos of the completed shelter ready to go to work:

The book has very elaborate details about how to build such a shelter so I don’t really feel I need to get into it. We did decide to add a hardware-cloth floor because there are also underground/digging predators in the area.

The next stage was to setup electric netting … which is a kind of electric fence that is fabricated as a net especially for poultry. What makes it particularly suitable for poultry is (1) more densely spaced lower wires in the net to keep small chicks in and (2) a bit extra height to keep jumping chickens in … though a jumper will get out if she really wants to. It was quite a project figuring out what we needed to get (maybe I’ll do a separate post on that?) and then to find what we needed here in Romania – we found two  German manufacturers represented here in Romania Patura & Ako and another Finnish company Olli.

A few days ago we got everything setup. We moved the mobile shelter to an area near the house we’d like the chickens to scratch up for us, installed the electric netting around it and baited most of the chickens in:

We forgot the electric fence tester in the shop (they sent it to us by mail) but we got clear confirmation that it is working. First a couple of chickens made contact with it and jumped back agitated. Then our two dogs touched it and both yelped very loud and ran off offended not be seen for a few hours. The chickens no longer test the fence. The dogs go nowhere near it. We have one hen who jumps the fence when she wants to lay an egg … insisting to move back into the nearby and familiar barn space where they lived until recently. Except for her, the other hens have found the nestbox inside the mobile shelter and have laid their eggs in it.

The enclosed space is currently disproportionate to the number of chickens we have … but the flock is about to grow.

Future View

In the future we plan to resurrect some of our pasture and to prepare it for permanent residence of the chickens. We intend to build the chickens an earthship (mostly underground) style shelter that is set into the slope of the hill designated to become their shelter. Harvey’s book has loads of valuale information on how to design and build such a more permanent coop (though it is our idea to move it underground). From it we plan to have a few electric-netted pasture areas through which we can rotate the flock.

The chickens themselves will help us this year ,with the current configuration to begin work on their future pasture-home. This will probably take a few years to achieve. This will include diverse plants and mini ecosystems that will hopefully lead to a mostly autonomous system where we have less and less reason to interfere.

A Few More Details

As we launched this experiment our first chicks hatched.

Our hatching ratio has been very lousy. We don’t know the cause however we believe it was due to the cock-to-hen ration in our flock. We had 2 cocks and 7 hens. The cocks would constantly get in each others way when either one attempted to mate with any of the hens. Though one seems to be dominant … mating is always violent and messy … and we now believe mostly not happening. We have exchanged some of our eggs with a neighbor … they will eat our eggs and a broody hen will sit on their, hopefully more fertile, eggs.

We also have 7 Muscovite ducks – 4 males and 3 females … again disproportionate. The thing is that the male cocks also mounted the female ducks. Two of the three femals are broody … we’ll see what comes of their eggs in about 2 weeks.

The ducks are currently ranging free outside the electric netting. The brooding hens are still in the barn and those with hatched chicks are also free ranging. Once the chicks grow a bit (2 or 3 weeks) we inted to introduce them with their mothers into the guarded area. When the ducks get past bruising and we cull the extra males (cock and ducks) we will probably try to move the ducks into the guarded area too.

 

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