The summer of 2020, we experimented with raising chickens on pasture using Joel Salatin style’s chicken tractors for pullets and Justin Rhode’s chickshaw (movable shelter) for our layers.
Every morning, we move the chicken tractors to a new spot to give them fresh pasture. Our chickshaw is moved every 10-14 days instead as it takes the flock longer to “finish their pasture” with a lower stock density. We have modified the original chicken tractor by Joel Salatin to half its size due to the weight and terrain.
While chicken tractors give a finer control on grazing intensity and area, we found the chicken tractors to be more suited for large continuous piece of flat pasture rather than small discontinuous patches on a hilly terrain (which is what we have most here on the farm campus).
Chickshaw, on the other hand, is better at utilizing pasture on an uneven terrain combined with electric netting. However, smaller hens tend to escape walking through the net at times and closing chickens in at nights can be a challenge when the chickens want to linger around for the midnight Sun.
Shelter: shade & enclosure (with holes no more than 1”)
The lengthy sun exposure in our northern summer can lead to heat stroke/ overheating without access to shelter. When many chickens are sharing a shade/ shelter, it is important to ensure there is enough space for all of them at the same time. It would also be wise to have the open side of the shelter facing North (wall side facing South), so there can be ample shade inside the shelter during the hottest time of the day (rather than having sun shine into the shelter).
Chickens are most vulnerable to predators at night when they can’t see, and the purpose of the enclosure is to protect them during these vulnerable times. We have lost eggs and chickens to weasels in the past and hence, a successful enclosure will need to be able to keep weasels out. We have found welded fence of 1” x 1” to be a shelter’s suitable flooring and window option.
Food: pasture, cooked grains, fermented grains, food waste & cooked waste fish
Up to 20% of a chicken’s diet can be from the pasture. Our chicken tractors and chickshaw enabled us to control graze with chickens.
We had access to large quantities of whole barley in summer 2020 and majority of their diet then was composed of cooked barley. The cooking increases its digestibility and the volume of feed by 20-40% (which makes the feed stretch for longer and reduces our feed cost). To increase the caloric and nutritional value, we also mix in salad dressing into the cooked grains (received regularly from food waste collected from supermarket in town).
Some of the grains are soaked for 5-10 days indoors to ferment anaerobically in order to introduce microbiology and diversify their diet. The length of soaking depends on the temperature, and shall be ready to use when it bubbles and smells like sauerkraut.
We collect food waste from a local supermarket to feed our chickens and pigs. While majority goes to our pigs, our chickens benefit from the occasional greens, melons, bread, yogurt, and salad dressing to supplement their diet. We also cook potatoes to feed them, especially our meat birds.
By-catch from local fishermen is a great source of protein. Since chickens have trouble peaking & tearing apart raw fish with their beaks, it is cooked to enable consumption.
It is important for the chickens to have constant access to water, especially in the middle of the day for those in the chicken tractors, due to the high temperatures and long daylight. When the chickens are still small and young, we use conventional poultry waterer. As they grow bigger, we transition to providing a fresh bucket of water twice a day for each chicken tractor. We have a DIY automatic water feeder for the chickshaw flock and we re-fill that whenever water level runs low.
Others: grit, calcium & dust bath
Chickens need grit in their gizzards to grind down their food, just like how we need teeth to chew. It is important for them to always have access to grit to digest their food.
Laying hens need a calcium source to produce a strong eggshell and replenish their continuously depleting reserve. While layers ration are typically supplemented with calcium, limestone and crushed oyster shells are also commercially available for this purpose. If you find eggs with brittle shell, it is a sign of calcium deficiency, and you can remediate/ prevent it by providing them constant access to calcium. You can also bake your used eggshells after you eat the eggs, and crush them as a calcium source (the baking help discourage development of a taste for raw eggs).
Dust bath is chicken’s way of cleaning themselves and keeping parasites at bay. With the frequent move to fresh ground, those in chicken tractors seems to do just fine with the patches of loose soil they had access to every now and then. While unlikely, we would provide our chickshaw layers (since they’re moved less) a bin of sand, wood ash and diatomaceous earth if there is no patches of loose soil in their new fenced area for that purpose.
Learn more about other tips we have about raising livestock in the North.